Beyond Donald Trump: When Poisons Curdle

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tags: Martin Luther King, racism, Vietnam War, inequality, militarism

When Martin Luther King preached his famous sermon “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967, I don’t recall giving his words a second thought. Although at the time I was just up the Hudson River attending West Point, his call for a “radical revolution in values” did not resonate with me. By upbringing and given my status as a soldier-in-the-making, radical revolutions were not my thing. To grasp the profound significance of the “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” to which he called his listeners’ attention was beyond my intellectual capacity. I didn’t even try to unpack their meaning.

In that regard, the ensuing decades have filled a void in my education. I long ago concluded that Dr. King was then offering the essential interpretive key to understanding our contemporary American dilemma. The predicament in which we find ourselves today stems from our reluctance to admit to the crippling interaction among the components of the giant triplets he described in that speech. True, racism, extreme materialism, and militarism each deserve — and separately sometimes receive — condemnation. But it’s the way that the three of them sustain one another that accounts for our nation’s present parlous condition.

Let me suggest that King’s prescription remains as valid today as when he issued it more than half a century ago — hence, my excuse for returning to it so soon after citing it in a previous TomDispatch. Sadly, however, neither the American people nor the American ruling class seem any more inclined to take that prescription seriously today than I was in 1967. We persist in rejecting Dr. King’s message.

Martin Luther King is enshrined in American memory as a great civil rights leader and rightly so. Yet as his Riverside Church Address made plain, his life’s mission went far beyond fighting racial discrimination. His real purpose was to save America’s soul, a self-assigned mission that was either wildly presumptuous or deeply prophetic.

In either case, his Riverside Church presentation was not well received at the time. Even in quarters generally supportive of the civil rights movement, press criticism was widespread. King’s detractors chastised him for straying out of his lane. “To divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating,” the New York Times insisted. Its editorial board assured their readers that racism and the ongoing war were distinct and unrelated: “Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.” King needed to stick to race and let others more qualified tend to war. 

The Washington Post agreed. King’s ill-timed and ill-tempered presentation had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” According to the Post’s editorial board, King had “done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies” and “an even greater injury to himself.” His reputation had suffered permanent damage. “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same respect.”

Life magazine weighed in with its own editorial slap on the wrist. To suggest any connection between the war in Vietnam and the condition of Black citizens at home, according to Life, was little more than “demagogic slander.” The ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia had “nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights here in America.” 

How could King not have seen that? In retrospect, we may wonder how ostensibly sophisticated observers could have overlooked the connection between racism, war, and a perverse value system that obsessively elevated and celebrated the acquisition and consumption of mere things. 

Read entire article at TomDispatch