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


"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.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies...True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.'  It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.'"  
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just."  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

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 world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.  We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

In 2009, in the midst of yet other illegal wars, with a Congress well-funded by corporations profiting from such wars, and following a presidential campaign in which the candidates of both major parties were beholden to their corporate benefactors, it is doubtful that King's "revolution of values" will come from any of our elected leaders.  If we truly "recall the fullness of his message," it is we ourselves who are called to act today to make the "great revolution of values" happen for us, and for our children. As King said, near the end of that Riverside Church speech ..."We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late."

How can we put Dr. King's words into action?  He gave us a hint in a speech, "Where Do We Go From Here?" which he gave later that same year, on August 16, 1967, at the SCLC Conference in Atlanta, Georgia: 
"And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love... What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience."

"Power devoid of love and conscience" is exactly what we in the U.S. have been blighted with for at least the past eight years, but which has also been the modus operandi of all governments, whether they call it "realpolitik" or "pragmatism," for most of human history.  That is why "reform" will not suffice.  That is why "a radical revolution of values is needed now, meaning "radical" in both the sense of "extreme" and "going to the root of," and "revolution" as in "overthrowing" the accepted, but continuously failing, value system of our culture.

The "love" of which King speaks is not the sentimental, Hallmark-card variety. It is not a mushy, "bleeding-heart liberal" emotion. It is a very active verb. Its closest meaning in English is demonstrating "compassion" and "empathy" (not mere "sympathy"), two words which carry within them the meanings of putting oneself in the place of those who are suffering, of "feeling the way they feel", not just "feeling for them."  Out of this compassion comes the realization not only of our literal as well as moral kinship, but of the need for justice or fairness for those suffering and oppressed, especially due to our values and our way of living.  It is the basis of the Golden Rule as well as of our own Declaration of Independence.


Therefore, it requires not only feelings, but actions which put that compassion and empathy into practice on personal and local levels, and especially on national and international levels.  This is the power which, " its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best...correcting everything that stands against love."  The policies and programs, environmental, social, and economic, which we must now demand of our leaders at this crucial time of human and environmental crises, especially in this, the most influential nation on earth, should and must be policies of compassion and justice which embody King's "radical revolution of values."

Let us commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not only as a civil rights or anti-war leader, but as a world leader against the ethic of greed, materialism, and exploitation -- what he termed "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism" -- and for the values of compassion and justice for all people, especially the poor and powerless, both at home and abroad.  It is precisely those roles which are his true, lasting legacy to all of us today, and we can best and truly celebrate his legacy by putting those "revolutionary" values into practice in our personal and public lives.

We ignore, or choose to forget this full legacy, not only to our shame and peril, but to that of future generations.


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ED CIACCIO Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

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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