It’s remarkable that Martin Luther King Jr. said this nearly 50 years ago:
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
It sounds like he’s talking about what’s happening in the U.S. today. And by “today,” I don’t mean this era or decade. I mean TODAY as in Jan. 16, 2017 — which is the 31st observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and less than a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump as a president with plans to create a cabinet of billionaires.
The quote comes from King’s fiery “Beyond Vietnam” anti-war speech, given at New York City’s Riverside Church on Apr. 4, 1967 — one year to the day before King’s assassination.
PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley produced a 2010 documentary entitled MLK: A Call to Conscience, which focused on what Smiley, in an interview with NPR, called “the most controversial speech [King] ever gave. … the speech he labored over the most.”
“After he gives it, 168 major newspapers the next day denounce him. The New York Times calls it wasteful and self-defeating. The Washington Post says he has done a discredit to himself, to his people, to his country. He would no longer be respected. And that’s just the Times and the Post.”
The address ruined his relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Smiley said, “LBJ had been the best president to black people on civil rights,” so other civil-rights leaders strongly opposed the speech both before and after it was given. Despite that, King proceeded. He acknowledged the difficulty of his decision to speak out at the beginning of his talk, noting, “I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” He continued, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
King said it was his preaching of non-violence at home that ultimately forced him to confront the violence overseas. Of his public anti-war stance, he said:
“… it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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.”
Talk about speaking truth to power! Even though his outspokenness hurt him among his own supporters and gave encouragement to his enemies, King followed his conscience. This is an example to follow — even though the path is arduous and we may have to wait for history to vindicate us.