Michelle Alexander at the Riverside Church, New York City. April 4, 2017.
Transcript of Michelle Alexander presentation. At the bottom of this post is the original audio of MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.We are here tonight (April 4, 2017) because 50 years ago today, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to a podium right here in Riverside Church and delivered a sermon that he knew would rock the world and lead to a wave of condemnation and vilification by many of his friends and close political allies. He did. The sermon that he gave that day is rarely mentioned on the national holiday that is named in his honor. It’s rarely mentioned during black history month. And yet it seems fair to say that 50 years later, it is this sermon that has proved the most prophetic. It is this sermon far more than I Have a Dream speech that speaks most directly to current moral and political crises that we face today.
The speech delivered in April 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. And at the time he delivered the speech, there was a horrific war raging in Vietnam, and had been raging for years. American soldiers were returning home in caskets and these images were broadcast on the evening news. Our military began using napalm, chemical warfare on women, children, entire villages. Bombs containing napalm, dropped on villages and photographic images of women and children burning alive, running from their villages were being circulated around the globe. During the Vietnam War, 8 million tons of bombs were dropped on that small country. All in the name of fighting communism.
A peace movement was growing and surging in the United States and some clergy were beginning to speak out. Pressure had been building on King to speak by those in the peace movement. And many young activists like Stokely Carmichael began to pressure King to speak out, “You’ve got to break your silence”. Even Muhammad Ali had taken his stance. He announced that as a Muslim, he was a conscience objector and that he would rather go to jail than in fight that war. He famously said, “No Vietnamese ever called me a ‘nigger’. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot those poor people? Just take me to jail”. And still King remained silent.
King actually wanted to break his silence years earlier. But members of his inner circle, many of his closest friends and advisors said, “No”. Begged him not to. They were afraid. They knew what the response would be. They knew there would be a vicious backlash. That he would be cast as a communist and as a traitor. And it would be an enormous setback for a movement that was really just beginning. Civil rights leaders didn’t want King criticizing President Lyndon Johnson. It was the last thing they wanted. For many of them, Johnson had been the best president black people ever had. He signed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights legislation, and he was promising to be an ally in the fights to come. “What kind of madness?” many of them said, “Would lead you to antagonize the president who has been a friend to black people? Who just signed the Civil Rights legislation we’ve been fighting for and some of us died for.”
And so when King stepped to the podium here in Riverside Church, he began his speech by saying, “I am here tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice”. And Dr. Vincent Harding was given the task of drafting the speech, a man who I have to say became a dear friend to me in the last years of his life. He’s a man whose spiritual and moral depth rivals anyone I have ever known. And this sermon that he drafted with King could have merely taken issue with the Vietnam War, but it went much, much further. Challenging the greed and imperialism of American empire and calling out the United States government as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
The entire sermon is grounded in King and Harding’s deeply held spiritual belief. That Vietnamese children or children of God no less than American children and no less than the young black men who were being drafted and sent to kill them. Every effort was made to ensure that this message would actually be heard by people of faith and conscience around the world. A decision was made that this message would not be delivered at a huge protest in March that was going to be occurring 10 days later at the United Nations. There was fear that if you were to deliver his remarks there, that they would get mixed up and the angry crowd and the political messaging and that the message would be corrupted or lost or distorted and confused in the media. And so Dr. King and his advisor said, “We need to give this speech at Union at Riverside in a place of worship”.
The next day, 168 newspapers denounced him and President Johnson disinvited him from the White House. The New York Times called the speech, “Wasteful and self-defeating”. The Washington Post said that, “Dr. King had done a discredit to himself, to his people, to his country, and that he would no longer be a respected man in America”. And the American public turned against him. The last poll taken in his life, the Harris Poll found that three quarters of the American people had turned against King on this issue, including a majority of black folks.
Now I encourage all of you who are here tonight, to read the sermon. To read the whole thing. Read it at least twice, and then ask yourself whether or not this exact same sermon could be delivered today with even greater force and resonance? We might need to change a few words, change Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Might need to tweak it here or there. But I believe that speech, that sermon, has more resonance today than it did 50 years ago when it was delivered. And if that’s true, I think that tonight in our conversation, we have to ask ourselves what we must do now to build that global revolution that Dr. King insisted was overdue 50 years ago?