This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King was murdered one year to the day after one of his most politically incisive speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
In that speech, King criticized American leadership for lacking what he termed, “true values.” He called for a “radical revolution of values,” claiming that such a revolution was the only way of defeating the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
While there is much I could say about the ongoing prevalence of racism today and the rampant materialism of American society, I will limit my comments on this MLK holiday to American militarism.
Despite a 2018 budget that contains large dollar cuts to programs for low- and moderate-income people, President Donald Trump recently signed into law a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes a $700 billion budget for the military. Celebrating the bill, Trump said, “We need our military. It’s got to be perfecto.”
The United States already spends more on military defense than the next eight countries combined. Military spending is the second-largest federal government expenditure after Social Security.
In addition to military spending, the militarization of local police forces in America has become a common practice. The issue of police using military-grade weapons and vehicles rose to national attention during the 2014 Ferguson protests.
This militarization mentality is one of the things King condemned more than 50 years ago. While Americans today will praise King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, few will highlight his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
In that speech, King spoke of social programs designed to help Americans being eviscerated, while millions of dollars were being spent on warfare. He described America as a “society gone mad on war.” King went on to call the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The media responded harshly to King. Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” An editorial in the April 6, 1967 Washington Post said King “has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies … and … an even graver injury to himself.” The Post continued, “Many who have listened to him 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.”
King’s critique of American militarism was characterized as an unpatriotic betrayal of his country, even though in the midst of his critique he asserted, “I speak as one who loves America… .” His critique was also spun as a betrayal “to his people.” Despite that portrayal, King was assassinated while advocating for the uplift of “his people.”
On March 18, 1968, two weeks before he was assassinated in Memphis, King delivered a speech to oppressed and exploited sanitation workers there. King declared that America was going to go to hell if it did not stop the economic exploitation of the poor.
King returned to Memphis on March 28 to lead a protest march on City Hall. The march quickly turned violent. King returned to Memphis six days later on April 3, determined to lead another march.
He delivered his last public speech that evening. King spoke of the injustice felt by the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike protesting low pay and poor working conditions. He also touched on death and his own mortality, saying, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… . Longevity has its place… . But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
King spent most of the next morning in his motel room working on his sermon for Sunday. Before King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet that day, he called his mother to give her his sermon title: “Why America May Go to Hell.” He warned that “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”
Despite the claim made by the Washington Post one year earlier, King had in no way “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.” We are most useful to our cause, to our country, and to our people when we’re courageous enough to speak truth to power on behalf of our cause, our country, and our people.
Critiquing American involvement in Vietnam, King said, “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just…’. 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’s call for visionary leadership is important for Americans to hear today. “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood… . War is not the answer… . Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness.”
While the current U.S. President promotes an “America first” strategy that stresses national loyalties over global loyalties and promotes the total annihilation of America’s enemies, King’s revolution of values promotes global human loyalties and the rejection of war. He said:
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind… . We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
As America celebrates the King holiday 50 years after his assassination, let us celebrate by pursuing King’s radical revolution of values. While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an important speech, anyone claiming to honor the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. without challenging the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” addressed in King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech is doing nothing more than paying lip service to the bold and courageous legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Guy D. Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research explores intersections between religion, race, politics, and social change.