So near, yet so far, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building.
On the steps of the former, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963; on the latter, Barack Obama will be sworn in as president of the United States tomorrow, almost 46 years later. And what a stunning serendipity it is that Inauguration Day falls on the day after we remember Dr. King.
But perhaps more evocative of our time and the dream’s fulfillment—or as civil rights activist, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia said, a “down payment on the fulfillment of that dream”—than King’s speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is his address before a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He gave this address on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he died.
This speech is usually regarded as King’s first major public statement of opposition to the war in Vietnam, which without question it is. But the title suggests that it is more than that: “Beyond Vietnam.”
Here King described what he believed to be the fundamental flaws in how Americans lived and viewed the world that led the country into a conflict in which it had no business:
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit...and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation.”
He continued, quoting John F. Kennedy:
“Five years ago [Kennedy] said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ 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...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.”
King drew criticism for this speech on every front, including from the NAACP and the Urban League, where the leadership believed it was a mistake to align the struggle for racial justice with the antiwar movement—and especially to criticize the Johnson administration while American troops were deployed overseas.
The Washington Post editorial page said, “He has diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country and his people.” Time magazine went further, calling the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” And the New York Times patronizingly accused him of being out of his depth. The FBI also took a renewed interest in King, reopening his file and describing him as “an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermined our Nation.”
But just as we have seen in the presidential campaign—and career—of Barack Obama, King took a view that was not non-racial, but that moved beyond even race to the very question of who we are and what this democracy—this “experiment,” as the historian Henry Adams liked to call it—is all about. And King found it wanting because the injustices of bigotry and poverty and inequality were rooted in misguided values.
“The Western arrogance,” he said, “of feeling that [the United States] has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
How eerily prescient are those words of the period through which we have just lived, in which arrogance seemed to define everything about the American character, from a jingoistic foreign policy to the angry nationalism that manifested itself in fear-mongering and gratuitous flag waving, and all played to the tune of explosive consumption and reckless borrowing that was encouraged by the Bush administration under the rubrics of “free-market capitalism” and “the ownership society.”
King might have been describing Iraq instead of Vietnam, Bush instead of Johnson:
“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.”
He called, rather, for a “true revolution of values”:
“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.”
Barack Obama frequently quoted King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech as the rationale for his candidacy. Here’s the full context, with Obama's favorite phrase cited in bold:
“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.’”
Now, almost five decades later, as we struggle through a perfect storm of calamities, from the financial crisis that has infected every home and business in the United States, to our wars and entanglements and occupations overseas, to the threats against the very fabric of our country brought about by the Bush administration’s reckless disregard for the Constitution, to the crisis of climate change that threatens our very existence, Obama’s election represents all that it does for racial justice for the very reason that it was not about race.
Seven and a half years ago, George W. Bush failed to unite the country in the single moment that he might have brought people together in an effort that could have exceeded that of World War II. It is the greatest failure of his administration—and the reason his administration failed. Americans wanted to sacrifice, wanted to do the right thing. For a brief period, people were polite to one another, compassionate even; they wanted to give of themselves. But Bush chose the divisive road. His base meant more than the country. Republican hegemony at home and American hegemony abroad meant more than asking people to spend less, invest in infrastructure, curtail oil consumption—consumption of any kind, for that matter—and conserve resources for our own sake and that of our children. The damage of that decision, which was central to all the bad decisions and mismanagement that followed, came with profound consequences.
Obama’s election, thus, has been a volcanic eruption of the good will and opportunity Bush left behind when he handed the bullhorn back to the fire chief and climbed down off the rubble. That powerful lava flow burned its way through the question of race and beyond, and Obama was there to tap it. He understood its source. Its flow is what we see on the Washington Mall today.
The full text and a recording of Dr. King’s address at Riverside Church are available at American Rhetoric: Martin Luther King, Jr: A Time to Break Silence (Declaration Against the Vietnam War).