Date: Tue, 4 May 1999 22:06:15 -0700 (PDT)
From: Art McGee <>
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Dr. King’s Forgotten Speech on Peace

Dr. King’s Forgotten Speech on Peace

By Paul Rockwell, Oakland, California, In Motion Magazine, [4 May 1999]

Twenty-nine years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech that changed my life. I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1967, during the peak of the Vietnam war. Almost by accident a friend invited me across the street to hear Dr. King deliver a comprehensive anti-war address at Riverside Church.

It was not the drama, the excitement of the occasion, nor King’s mellifluous voice passing over the hushed sanctuary as he described the holocaust of Indochina. It was not even the way history later vindicated King’s teachings on war—everything he predicted came to pass—that makes his 1967 address so memorable to me. It is the vitality of his teachings for our own lives, especially the immediate relevance to bloated military budgets, that compels me to recall and reread the Peacemaker’s masterpiece once again.

The economic and moral crisis we are all facing today—the rise of violent crime, spread of drugs, the growing poverty of the working poor, the suffocation of millions of decent lives in the ghettos of our cities—all date back to that fateful turn when American leaders, pressured by big corporations, chose war over peace, empire over civil rights and social progress.

Dr. King saw our crisis coming. A few years ago, he began from his well-lit pulpit, speaking in reference to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the new anti-poverty programs, when America was moving forward—A few years ago, there was a shining moment in our 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 the programs broken. I was compelled to see the war as the enemy of the poor.

As Dr. King analyzed the hope-wrecking nature of war, I put down my Pen, stopped taking notes, and listened with my heart, as he described, not only the devastation abroad, the injuries and scarred lives of the working class youth returning home, but the spiritual costs of imperialism—the mendacity of our leaders, the disillusionment of youth. A nation, he said, that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

King reminded his listeners that U.S. lawlessness abroad breeds violence within the United States as well. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected angry men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems ... But they ask—and rightly so—what about Vietnam? Wasn’t our own nation using massive doses of violence to solve its problems? 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 against the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.

King’s speech included severe criticisms of the draft and the imbalance in military recruitment. American interventions are administered and organized at the expense of the poor, especially at the expense of people of color. In the Korean and Vietnam wars, African Americans and Latinos were drafted way out of proportion to their civilian numbers. Primarily white middle-class college students got a preferential program—college deferment. Speaking of people of color, King said the war was sending their sons and their brothers and husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. In face of gross inequities, King was color caring, not color blind.

Costs of Militarism Today

The war is passed, the cold war is over. But King’s teachings about the moral and social costs of militarism are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago. After all, there still is no Marshall Plan for our cities, no jobs program for our youth, yearning for hope and direction. American leaders still refuse to turn swords into ploughshares, to heed the teachings of King.

The $243 billion Defense appropriation, recently passed by House and Senate, is a mockery of economic justice. American cities are in decay, but Americans are paying more for defense than all potential adversaries and neutral parties combined.

The Reagan administration in the ’80s tripled the U.S. budget deficit through military profligacy. Worldwatch Institute notes, year after year, that the U.S. is the largest arms producer, the biggest merchant of death, in the world. Subsidized by American taxpayers, American corporations - General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, General Electric, Lockheed, Hughes Aircraft, to name a few—sell weapons of mass destruction to over 40 countries throughout the world. And when foreign governments (like Egypt) default on military loans, U.S. taxpayers cover the gambling losses of the arms manufacturers and the banks. Dr. King once described the sale of weaponry on a world scale as one of the great social crimes of the modern age.

I left Riverside Church inspired and drenched from the intensity of the event. The following day Dr. King’s address caused an outcry, a backlash in the media. TIME, in a typical example, called it demagogic slander, a script for Radio Hanoi. The Riverside address was recorded and filmed for posterity, but it is rarely quoted or mentioned in today’s post civil-rights media. Nevertheless, I can still hear King reciting the words of James Russell Lowell:

Though the cause of evil prosper yet ’tis truth alone is strong.