Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil rights leader, political activist, and one of the greatest orators in American history. There is so much to be said about Mr. King. We are taught in schools about his struggle in bringing an end to racial segregation and racial discrimination in America. We are all too familiar with his efforts to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.
Unfortunately, this is pretty much where the history lesson stops in our school books. If I were to ask you what King was doing from 1965 to the year of his death in 1968, what would you answer?
Did he continue to write? Did he continue to give speeches? The answer is YES; and with greater vigor and passion than ever before. While almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped, they are not shown or discussed much outside of certain circles. They are definitively not shown or discussed on TV today.
It’s because national news media [and certain groups] have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years. In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. But all this changed after King started to tackle “bigger fish”.
After passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 appearance at the New York City Riverside Church —exactly one year before his death — King delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam“.
If you haven’t heard this speech, stop what you’re doing and listen to it. You can find the full transcript here. In the speech, he spoke strongly against the U.S.’s role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today“.
“They [the Vietnamese] 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 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 war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… 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.” 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.”
From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them. 
These are some “harsh” words indeed, but it only gets better…
While King opposed the Vietnam War for a variety of reasons, one of his biggest complaints was that the war took money and resources that could have been spent on social welfare services like the War on Poverty. He summed up this aspect by saying, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.“
King now started to encroach on a very sensitive topic: Money!
He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.
“True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington – engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be – until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights.
King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” – appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness“. 
King called for a “Revolution of Values”. King’s revolution would:
- Cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
- Look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
- Lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”
“These are revolutionary times”, King said. “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 anti-revolutionaries. 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, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
King became a very dangerous man to the American elite. He shook up the status quo in the early 1960’s, but now, he was calling for revolution. King called for more than civil rights, he called for “Human Rights” – including economic rights. He called upon every man and woman to rise up and join in this great revolution.
We all know what happens to revolutionaries, right?
King lost significant support among his white allies, including President Johnson, union leaders and powerful publishers. “The press is being stacked against me,” King complained. Life magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi”, and The Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” 
King was ignored then and continues to be ignored to this day. In this nation of immense wealth, the White House and most in Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty. They fund foreign wars with “alacrity and generosity,” while being miserly in dispensing funds for education, healthcare and environmental cleanup.
This year, let’s remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s true vision: That change is more revolutionary than mere reform. Racism, poverty, militarism and materialism are symptoms of a sick society. The real issue to be faced is the “reconstruction of society itself”.
Thanks for reading,
Notes: Just want to mention two names that are seldom talked about when discussing MLK and the March on Washington: Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. These are the great black secularists who actually organized the March on Washington, with their friends, like Victor Reuther of the United Automobile Workers. These are the people who actually put this great movement of liberation onto the streets, but, unfortunately, are airbrushed from history. Remember these names and get to know these men.
- “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence”, delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, Transcript: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm
- Kick, Russell (2001). You are Being Lied to: The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths. The Disinformation Campaign. p. 1991.
- Krenn, Michael L. (1998). The African American Voice in U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II. Taylor & Francis. p. 29.
- Lawson, Steven F.; Charles M. Payne; James T. Patterson (2006). Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1968. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 148.