Moral Low Ground

War & Peace

50 Years Later, MLK’s “A Time To Break Silence” Speech Is as Relevant as Ever

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helps lead the massive March 16, 1967 New York City protest against the Vietnam War. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most important speech that wasn’t about civil rights, an address that has been all but forgotten today but which rings as true now as it did when he spoke his words half a century ago.

In Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence (audio and text here), King, who was deeply opposed to the US war in Vietnam, opens by asserting that “a time comes when silence is betrayal… that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war,” said King. “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” King lamented how the promise of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, the most serious federal effort against poverty in a generation, was shattered like “some idle political play thing of a society gone mad on war.” He then “knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as 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 continued, with emphasis on the young black men being disproportionately drafted and shipped “8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Recalling how he counseled the “desperate, rejected and angry young men” he met in America’s inner cities, King then spoke some of the most famous — and controversial — words of his address: “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.”

King noted the breathtaking hypocrisy of “the most powerful nation of the world speaking of (Vietnamese) aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8,000 miles from its shores,” a hypocrisy that goes all the way back to when the first white invaders “discovering” this continent called the indigenous people who resisted their genocidal usurpation “savage aggressors.” It has continued down through the centuries, right up to the present day as the same hypocritical cognitive dissonance had us calling the brave Iraqis who resisted Bush’s devastatingly murderous invasion of their homeland “terrorists” while ignoring the fact that we were the ones terrorizing them and not the other way around.

“The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism,” King predicted all those years ago. However, he also insisted that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in a revolution of values,” optimistically concluding “there is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” stressed King. “When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” He leaves us with a warning that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

We have heeded none of warnings in A Time To Break Silence. Quite the contrary; the United States continues to engage in all the destructive — both to others and to self — behavior condemned in King’s speech: the prioritization of militant imperialism over the provision of even the most basic social needs, waging costly and unjust wars of aggression, claiming to champion the cause of freedom while supporting some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, serving corporate greed over human need. As President Donald Trump follows through on his murderous promise to “bomb the shit out of” Islamist terrorists and “take out their families” by indiscriminately slaughtering innocent men, women and children by the hundreds, and as the death toll from more than 15 years of endless US war in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa continues to climb well past the million mark, it becomes painfully clear that the United States remains today, as it was in King’s time, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Today, A Time To Break Silence isn’t anywhere near as well-known as King’s earlier civil rights speeches. Today, King is revered by a nation whose more regressive agents once tried to discredit and destroy him, for what conservatism is, at its core, is an unending effort to preserve the aggregate barbarism of the ages. Today, school children across American can cite lines from I Have A Dream, the most famous of King’s civil rights addresses. But almost no one but historians and a handful of activists knows a single line of A Time To Break Silence. This is not an accident. King’s message has been whitewashed to conform to the official narrative; that is, America is an imperfect nation but one in which justice eventually prevails given a long enough timeline. His pacifism is remembered only in the context of the fight for racial justice. His anti-war, anti-imperialism and pro-socialist writings and speeches have been largely forgotten, even if his life was increasingly dedicated to these causes as it neared its tragically premature end.

This in itself is a great injustice, a perversion of history and an implicit rebuke of the wisdom of a man who was arguably the greatest American who ever lived. King implored us to resist — “every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest” — for in the end, We the People “bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict,” whether it be in the jungles and hamlets of Vietnam or the deserts and cities of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or any of the half dozen or so nations whose innocent civilians are being killed, maimed, displaced or terrorized by American bombs and bullets dropped and fired in the name of a “freedom” few will ever know.

“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” King said 50 years ago today. “It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning” and “take the initiative in bringing the war to a halt.” America has yet to reach that maturity, as it is waging war in far more countries today than in 1967. The cautionary words of A Time To Break Silence are as urgent today as they were then; our indifference to them is more dangerous than ever.

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