Martin Luther King + 50: Toward a Year of Truth and Transformation
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke his most profound and most prophetic sermon. At Riverside Church in New York City, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at his side, he addressed a group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam with a speech he entitled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.”
The public face of his speech was a strong denunciation of the U. S. Government’s war in Vietnam. More than half the speech took up, case by case, aspects of the war that King argued were immoral U.S. actions – lethal to the Vietnamese and to American soldiers, destructive to the War on Poverty that had been President Johnson’s domestic program, and a violation of the best American values.
King asserted that he could not in good conscience call for the Negro (his word) community to act nonviolently in carrying on its struggle for racial equality without calling on his own government to stop being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The public response of most liberal opinion was to criticize the speech. The New York Times said in its April 7 editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” “The strategy of uniting the peace movement and civil rights could very well be disastrous for both causes.” The Washington Post wrote that his speech had ‘‘diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”
But the speech was aptly titled “Beyond Vietnam.” The public response focused on its antiwar stance — but at its heart was an even deeper heartfelt , soul-baring critique of American society:
“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 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. . . . We are confronted by the fierce urgency of Now.”
No wonder Dr. King spoke about how painful it was to “break the silence”!
Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968, he was murdered. During that last year of his life, he began to plan the multiracial movement of the “Poor People’s Campaign.” His close friend and comrade, the activist historian Dr. Vincent Harding, who wrote the first draft of ”Beyond Vietnam,” has said he thinks the speech itself and King’s outreach beyond the “civil rights movement” to a deeper critique and a broader scene of action were so threatening to the established order that they were the cause of his assassination.
Why did Dr. King use the word “triplets” when “three” or “trio” would have been enough? Perhaps because biological triplets share a great deal of their DNA. What DNA do these socially destructive triplets share? The DNA of subjugation, of top-down power.
Today the “fierce urgency of Now” is even fiercer. We see extraordinary efforts by the present government of the United States to subjugate the poor, the Black, the Brown, Muslims, immigrants, women, those who need medical care, the independent press, the struggling middle class, even Mother Earth. What would Dr. King be doing today?
What we can do is honor his wisdom and courage by emulating it. We could make the year ahead, the fiftieth anniversary of his last year in life, a Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.
We could begin now by gathering in our houses of faith and spirit, our labor union halls and chambers of commerce, our schools and colleges and neighborhood associations, to read or watch “Beyond Vietnam” and have serious conversations about what actions it calls us to today. The text and audio/ video and many thoughtful comments on it are on the website <MLK50.org>.
On April 4 itself, major gatherings are planned at Riverside Church in New York and at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church three blocks from the White House in Washington, DC. And a host of organizations have taken on this effort to reawaken knowledge of this prophetic message — from The Shalom Center, the National Council of Elders ,and the Fellowship of Reconciliation to the Ecumenical Days of Advocacy and a coalition of fifty groups including Black Lives Matter and the People’s Climate Movement in a campaign called Beyond the Moment: Uniting Movements from April 4th to May Day.
As these efforts already show, like King in the Poor People’s Campaign we could reach across racial and religious boundaries not only to affirm our diverse identities but then to see the deeper unity within them. We can insist that we will not allow any of us to be marginalized or subjugated – not urban Blacks or rural whites, not Muslims or Jews or evangelical Christians, not recent immigrants or “old-stock” Scotch-Irish.
We could create grassroots models of resistance and resilience that actually embody in the living present our visions of the future — college teach-ins and neighborhood freedom schools; solar-energy co-ops sponsored by religious congregaions; neighborhood cultural festivals, credit unions, and food co-ops, etc. –- seeds of what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
We could organize nonviolent actions that directly challenge centers of egregious violence like long-term detention of refugees who seek asylum, militarized police forces that refuse to root out racist behavior by police officers, and banks that flaunt their materialist greed by bank-rolling pipelines for oil and unnatural gas, poisoning the air we breathe asthmatically and the planet that is choking on CO2 and methane.
And we could begin planning that when the Year of Truth and Transformation ends on April 4, 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, there will be a National Day of Action, Atonement and At-ONE-ment. On that day, fasting and special religious services for some, teach-ins for others, work stoppages, public rallies, and a myriad other actions around the country could bring us together for the revolution in values that Dr. King called us to create.
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* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is director of The Shalom Center, a prophetic voce in Jewish, multireligious, and American life since 1983. He was honored by Truah, the Rabbinic Voice for Human Rights, with its Lifetime Achievement Award as a “Human Rights Hero,” and was named by the Forward as one of the most inspiring American rabbis.