Martin Luther King, Jr., January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968Beyond Vietnam (1967)"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary
spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal
hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful
commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores,
and thereby speed the day when 'every valley shall be exalted, and
every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made
straight, and the rough places plain.'"
Transcription at numerous websites
by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Address to the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam,
The Riverside Church, New York City
April 4, 1967
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very
delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see
you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed
tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I
consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr.
Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the distinguished leaders and
personalities of our nation. And of course it's always good to come
back to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had the
privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it is
always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and
this great pulpit.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my
conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting
because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the
organization which has brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned
About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are
the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when
I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That
time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they
call us is a most difficult one. 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. Nor does the human
spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of
conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world.
Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do
in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of
being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
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. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to
our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for
surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a
significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond
the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm
dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of
history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us
trace its movement, and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive
to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the
darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own
silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have
called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many
persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of
their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are
you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of
dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you
hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them,
though I often understand the source of their concern, I am
nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the
inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.
Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which
they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of
signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I
believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--the church in
Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate-leads clearly to this
Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a
Saigon street on June 11, 1963, to protest alleged persecution
of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.
(AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved
nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National
Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it
an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the
need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it
an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front
paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the
successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have
justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United
States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that
conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both
sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the
National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I
have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral
vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile
connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others
have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment
in that struggle. 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 this 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.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when 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 hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not
be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
A father holds the body of his child as South Vietnamese Army
Rangers look down from their armored vehicle March 19, 1964.
The child was killed as government forces pursued guerrillas
into a village near the Cambodian border. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows
out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three
years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the
desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov
cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to
offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that
social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But
they asked, and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They asked if our own
nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to
bring about the changes it wanted. 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.
For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the
sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I
cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and
thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this
further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the
soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision
to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction
that America would never be free or saved from itself until the
descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they
still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black
bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern
for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.
If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must
read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the
deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are
yet determined that "America will be" are led down the path of protest
and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America
were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in
1954.* And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a
commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before
for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the
meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the
relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that
I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the
war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for
all men--for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for
black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they
forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his
enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the
Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can
I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the United Nations in
New York during the mass march and protest on April 15, 1967.
Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads
from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most
valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I
share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond
the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and
brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned,
especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come
tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the
burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and
loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go
beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to
speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation,
for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make
these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways
to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the
people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side,
not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in
Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse
of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too,
because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution
there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken
cries.Demo at the Lincoln Memorial, October 21, 1967.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people
proclaimed their own independence in 1954-in 1945 rather-after a
combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist
revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they
quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document
of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to
support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government
felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence,
and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has
poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic
decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking
self-determination and a government that had been established not by
China--for whom the Vietnamese have no great love--but by clearly
indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this
new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs
in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right
of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in
their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war
we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the
French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their
reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge
financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had
lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this
tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land
reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there
came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the
temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we
supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man,
Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly
rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and
refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants
watched as all of this was presided over by United States influence and
then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help
quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was
overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military
dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their
need for land and peace.
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments
in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and
without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and
received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform.
Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow
Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we
herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where
minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be
destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we
poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must
weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy
the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty
casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury.
So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They
wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless,
without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see
the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see
the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for
their mothers.After the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, in which 504
civilian men, women and children were killed by US troops.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and
as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land
reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them,
just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the
concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent
Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and
the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have
cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist
revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have
supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted
their women and children and killed their men.
Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only
solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military
bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call "fortified
hamlets." The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new
Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such
thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot
raise. These, too, are our brothers.
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for
those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National
Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call "VC" or
"communists"? What must they think of the United States of America when
they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem,
which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the
South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to
their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when
now we speak of "aggression from the North" as if there were nothing
more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge
them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them
with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land?
Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone
their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed
them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own
computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is
less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them
the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are
aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear
ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized
political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can
speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and
controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder
what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only
party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political
goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they
will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our
nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up
upon the power of a new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when
it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to
know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see
the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may
learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are
called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the North, where our bombs now pummel the land,
and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but
understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of
confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American
intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence
against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in
the French Commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and
the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second
struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were
persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth
and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954
they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which could
have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and
they realized they had been betrayed again. When we ask why they do not
leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered.
Also, it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence
of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the
initial military breach of the Geneva Agreement concerning foreign
troops. They remind us that they did not begin to send troops in large
numbers and even supplies into the South until American forces had
moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the
earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed
that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has
watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now
he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American
plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling
and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy.
Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears
the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it
drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight
hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these
last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to
understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as
deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it
occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not
simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies
face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the
process of death, for they must know after a short period there that
none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.
Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a
struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize
that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create
a hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of
God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those
whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose
culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are
paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and
corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world
as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves
America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this
war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently
one of them wrote these words, and I quote: "Each day the war goes on
the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts
of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their
friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans,
who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do
not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological
and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the
image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the
world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not
stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will
be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible,
clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands
a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands
that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our
adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the
Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to
turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and
errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to
this tragic war.
I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should
do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating
ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action
will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast
Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference
Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front
has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in
any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in
accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]
Part of our ongoing [applause continues], part of our ongoing commitment
might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese
who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation
Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have
done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it
available in this country if necessary. Meanwhile [applause],
meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task
while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful
commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our
nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to
match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for
them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the
alternative of conscientious objection. [sustained applause] I am
pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy
students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to
all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust
one. [applause] Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age
to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as
conscientious objectors. [applause] These are the times for real
choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be
placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man
of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his
convictions, but we must all protest.
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and
sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade
against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I
wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the
American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and
if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing
"clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They
will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned
about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique
and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names
and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and
profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So
such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as
sons of the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to
him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During
the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which
has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela.
This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for
the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells
why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia
and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active
against rebels in Peru.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F.
Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make
peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution
inevitable." [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is
the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful
revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the
pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. 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.
We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from
a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines
and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more
important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme
materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness
and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand
we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that
will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole
Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be
constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's
highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It
comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will
look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West
investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only
to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of
the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our
alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not
just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach
others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of
values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of
settling differences is not just." This business of burning human
beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and
widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples
normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields
physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be
reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year
after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of
social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well
lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a
tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that
the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with
bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against
communism. [applause] War is not the answer. Communism will never be
defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join
those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the
United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations.
These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We
must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive
thrust for democracy [applause], realizing that our greatest defense
against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We
must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty,
insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed
of communism grows and develops.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the
wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being
born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as
never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
We in the West must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of
communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations
that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world
have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to
feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism
is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow
through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies
in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a
sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism,
and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge
the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every
valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low
[Audience:] (Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation
must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order
to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern
beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an
all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft
misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by
the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now
become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of
love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I'm not
speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of
that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme
unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the
door which leads to ultimate reality. This
Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is
beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love
one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is
born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God
is love.... If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is
perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the
altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the
ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of
nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
As Arnold Toynbee says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the
saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and
evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that
love is going to have the last word." Unquote.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We
are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding
conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.
Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us
standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in
the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out
desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to
every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues
of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."
There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our
vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger
writes, and having writ moves on."
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent
coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new
ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the
developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act,
we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors
of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might
without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and
bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of
the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall
we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too
hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate
against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or
will there be another message--of longing, of hope, of solidarity with
their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The
choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose
in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently
stated: Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide, In the
strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great
cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight, And the
choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light. Though the
cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong Though her
portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong Yet that
scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown Standeth God
within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform
this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will
make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling
discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we
will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day,
all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down
like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [sustained
* King says "1954," but most likely means 1964, the year he received the
Nobel Peace Prize.
"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money." --Nineteenth century Nēhilawē (Cree) proverb
Monday, January 16, 2017
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