Up Next

King’s Vietnam speech still holds true 50 years later

Bernice King says her father’s love of humanity is what is missing today

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. It was titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King criticized the war in Vietnam, calling on those of draft age to seek status as conscientious objectors and saying, “we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”

Exactly one year after giving that speech, King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, brought down by a sniper’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel.

During a recent speech at the National Press Club, King’s youngest daughter, Bernice, noted that once her father started speaking out against the war in Vietnam he became a threat.

“The reason why my father was assassinated was because he had such a love for humanity,” King told the crowd. “It was not because he was talking about black and white together. He was assassinated because once he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, he started talking about how we were distributing our wealth to fight what he felt was an unjust war.”

King’s daughter noted how her father’s next mission, the war on poverty, was put on the back burner as the country focused on the Vietnam War. King said as much in his speech:

It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

King also saw the injustice of sending young poor black men to fight for rights that they didn’t have in their own country.

It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

And the civil rights leader realized the hypocrisy when rioters in Northern cities pointed out his push for nonviolent action while America wreaked violence in Vietnam.

Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

But it was King’s concern for the people of Vietnam, who he said languished “under our bombs,” that powered his protest.

… We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. … We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. … Now there is little left to build on — save bitterness.”

Her father’s love of humanity is what is missing today, said King.

“I am very concerned about the state of America right now,” King told the audience at the National Press Club. “I’m concerned about the deep polarization that exists in our nation and the fact that it is potentially getting worse. And if there’s anything that Dr. King tried to teach us, it was how to create a world where we could co-exist with all of our different ideologies.”

King noted that Black Lives Matter and President Donald Trump both “awakened us to our deep divisions, which in many respects we have tried to avoid, ignore, deny.”

Her father, she said, left an important blueprint — plans and strategies.

“In his book, Where Do We Go from Here? he asked is it going to be chaos or is it going to be community? And that’s a question we need to ask today,” King said. “Where do we go from this distinct moment in time in America? Are we going to move toward more chaos or are we going to move toward community?”

She relayed a story her father once told her about a time when he was in jail.

“He said he began talking to his jailers, asking them about their situation. They told him about the challenges of not having enough money. When they finished, he said to them, ‘Well, you ought to be marching with us.’ He had such a capacity to hear,” said King.

Today’s climate is hostile and intense, she noted.

“We need people who will value courageous conversation that includes respectful discourse and keen listening,” King explained to the crowd. “There has to be some people who are willing to rise above the fray and be willing to engage in conversations with people who see a little bit different and understand a little bit differently.

“That’s what Daddy was doing. He was coming outside of himself. He was daring to have the courage to have the conversation with those who didn’t care for him.”

That’s not done today, she pointed out.

“We’re not hearing each other right now because we’re too intent on getting our points across. We don’t like to listen oftentimes to people who think differently than we do,” she said. “We want to draw a line in the sand. We want to cut them off. We want to shut them down. We want to unfriend them on Facebook. We want to disconnect the link on LinkedIn and we want to enter into a dragging event on Twitter.”

Her father, King said, acknowledged while writing his last book that movement leaders never developed long-term processes for long-term challenges.

“He said, you know we were acting in the moment as we were living this movement,” she noted. “We were just specialists in those momentary crises. But we’ve got to organize our strength into compelling power.”

That’s the challenge of today, King said, noting that “every day there’s another nonprofit being built, doing something similar to another nonprofit.”

“We’ve got to look at the landscape of the black community, and we’ve got to make some very hard decisions and choices. One of those decisions and choices that we have to begin to make is we’re going to have to figure out how not to continue to dilute our strength and our power,” said King. “We have to find an agenda where we can work together. We can’t keep trying to scatter our energy the way we do. Why can’t we forge an agenda together that we both want to pour into our strengths, and our areas of strength? … That’s when we’re going to see massive change.”

Lottie Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers race, social justice, civil rights and culture. She has written for The Washington Post, USA Today, The Daily Beast, Time.com, TheAtlantic.com and Essence magazine.