The second Tavis Smiley Reports delves into one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest but little known speeches, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," which he delivered on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City. I examine the context of Dr. King's words on liberty, responsibility and freedom against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights and an increasingly unpopular war. The primetime special examines the implications of his words today, particularly in light of President Obama's decision to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For more information, click here.
I. War & Peace
Three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "Beyond Vietnam" speech on April 4, 1967, at The Riverside Church in New York City, he had received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and had bequeathed his entire $54,123 monetary award to the nonviolent movement for social justice in America. The 35-year-old King was and remains the youngest person in history to receive the prestigious award. In accepting the Peace Prize, King asserted that "civilization and violence are antithetical concepts" in order to challenge the myth of American triumphalism. In 2009, 48-year-old Nobel Laureate and wartime President Barack Obama accepted his Peace Prize and distributed his $1.4 million monetary award to various charitable organizations. In contrast to Dr. King, President Obama's acceptance argued that "the instruments of war have a role to play in preserving the peace."
II. King or Obama?
Given the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech King christened America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Almost 45 years later, President Obama is arguing the notion of "just war" in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is justifying the use of drones in Pakistan. Who's right: King or Obama?
III. What a Difference a Day Makes
The day after his speech the editorial boards of numerous mainstream newspapers denounced King's stance on Vietnam, claiming that he had speciously fused the struggle for civil rights with the politics of war, and plainly overstepped his bounds. The New York Times cast "Beyond Vietnam" as "wasteful and self-defeating," while the Washington Post averred that "many who have listened to [King] with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." The severity of the overwhelming media pushback brought King to tears.
IV. King & a Crown of Thorns
"Beyond Vietnam" resulted in King's being disinvited to the White House by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and a public rebuke by the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League. None of this compares, however, to the fateful day exactly one year after King had called the nation to look "Beyond Vietnam." On April 4, 1968, King was killed by an assassin's bullet on a Memphis motel balcony. Given the adulation and adoration contemporarily bestowed upon Dr. King, it is mind-boggling to note that on the day he died, King was America's persona non grata. Almost three-quarters of the nation had turned against him and more than half of Black America had spurned his witness.
V. Come Sunday
One of the last calls Dr. King made from Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel was to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as co-pastor with his father, Daddy King. Despite the negative repercussions following his Tuesday, April 4, 1967, "Beyond Vietnam" speech, King's conviction about the immorality of what America was doing in Vietnam did not waver during the last year of his life. Indeed, King told his father he had resolved that come Sunday, April 7, 1968, his sermon topic would have been "Why America May Go to Hell."
Tavis Smiley is the host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI.