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"A Radical Revolution of Values": Dr. King's Most Important Speech

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Headlined to None 1/16/09

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."~~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

No, it's not the "I Have A Dream" speech most people associate with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ceremoniously trot out every year as we commemorate his birthday.  These words are from a King speech largely ignored by mainstream commentators who are content to pigeonhole him as a "slain civil rights leader," as though his Nobel Prize was awarded solely for his civil rights efforts. 

It's a speech known very well to advocates of peace and social justice. It's an audacious, even dangerous speech which turned many former supporters against him after he gave it, and may even have accelerated the efforts of those who felt so threatened by this audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it.  And it's a speech that has even more resonance for us today than it did more than 40 years ago, and not merely because we will see our first African-American President inaugurated five days after what would have been Dr. King's 80th birthday.

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, King gave a speech -- "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" -- at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.  Clergy and Laity Concerned was one of many groups opposed to the Vietnam War.  This powerful, enlightening speech contains passages which are strikingly, even eerily, more relevant to us today than when King first spoke them.  Replace "Vietnam" with "Iraq and Afghanistan" and this speech is as timely as if it was given this morning.  Anticipating and answering those who criticized him for speaking out against the illegal, unnecessary war on the people of Vietnam, he said:

"I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such... I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

By calling the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," King antagonized many of his own supporters, who not only then, but still today, choose to ignore United States' foreign policy, including the many violent military and CIA "operations" conducted by various administrations since at least 1947 "to protect America's vital interests and security" while overthrowing elected governments and causing the deaths of millions of innocent people.  In doing so, he not only expanded his message beyond civil rights to the violence of war and exploitation, but also beyond Americans to all people in words which still sear our consciences: 

"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."

Speaking today, he would no doubt have decried the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the slaughter of civilians in Gaza by U.S.-supplied weapons, and the threat to all life on earth from human-caused climate chaos.  But he would be especially critical of our own nation, the most powerful and wealthy on earth, which maintains that power and wealth through an empire of over 760 military bases in more than 130 foreign nations, supporting exploitative, impoverishing, environmentally-devastating economic policies such as NAFTA and through control of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization whose "structural adjustment" policies serve mainly to drive poor Third World nations even deeper into un-repayable debt.

Meanwhile, as the world's biggest arms merchant, the U.S. supplies advanced military equipment to oppressive governments such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and all of this with mostly unquestioning bipartisan Congressional support.

In his 1967 speech, citing such a U.S. foreign policy, even before the term 'blowback' was widely known, King said:

"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 investment."

But it is the passage immediately following those words which should force us all to recall Dr. King's prescience, and the tragic truth his words still hold for us today:

"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.

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Ed is a conscientious objector to war, a retired teacher, a writer, and a full-time peace and justice activist with special concerns about climate chaos, economic justice, and nuclear weapons.
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thanks for reminding us   ... by abacus on Sunday, Jan 18, 2009 at 5:59:32 PM


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