On April 4, 1967, King delivered “Beyond Vietnam,” one of his most dramatic and controversial speeches, at Riverside Church on 121st Street. An utter denunciation of the war in Vietnam and indictment of American imperialism, the speech linked critiques of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. King lamented, “We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” (You can listen to the audio.)
Biographer Tavis Smiley says that this Riverside address “was the speech he labored over the most.” (The speechwriter with whom he worked on “Beyond Vietnam”, Vincent Harding, recently passed away.) Much of the hour-long sermon is devoted to an exhaustive history of the conflict in Vietnam, including the U.S. government’s refusal to recognize Vietnamese self-determination from France, though the Vietnamese “quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom.” King wonders how we could possibly view ourselves as Vietnam’s “liberators” as we bombed their villages and destroyed their land, a worthy question in light of our more recent overseas adventures. Nor does King acknowledge the framing of the Viet Cong as our enemies, “for no document from human hands can make these humans any less than our brothers.”
Having made clear that he would be satisfied with nothing short of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, King turns to more universal themes. He hammers America’s growing addiction to materialism, imperialism, and the politics of hate – repeatedly calling for a revolution in values and an end to “poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Like King’s other speeches, “Beyond Vietnam” demands both concrete reforms and a fundamental reevaluation of how we treat each other:
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…A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… A true revolution of values will lay hand 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 the veins of peoples 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.
During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama frequently cited the “fierce urgency of now,” a phrase King employs during this speech. The tour de force ends with King calling for the day “when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The New York Times blasted King’s “facile” connection between the escalating war in Vietnam and de-escalation of funding for the War on Poverty in an editorial named “Dr. King’s Error.” The specific use of the word “facile” is interesting insofar as King had used the term himself in acknowledging how obvious the connection was! In fact, none other than President Lyndon Johnson drove himself to depression watching Vietnam soak up not only the funds but the political energy behind the Great Society programs. Of course, while LBJ believed that privately, he fumed at MLK’s “betrayal” on Vietnam, severing a relationship that previously, contrary to its presentation in the recent movie, Selma, had been one of significant cooperation and amicability. Eerily, King’s sermon at Riverside took place exactly a year before he was killed, and the two men would never have a chance to repair that fissure.
Riverside Church was a fitting locale for a speech of such magnitude. “It is always good to come back to Riverside Church,” King had begun. Built in the 1930s, Riverside immediately established itself a multi-racial, non-denominational hub, committed to helping the poor and fighting for social justice. Jackie Robinson’s funeral was held at Riverside, with Jesse Jackson providing the eulogy. Yet its contributions to New York City’s history is not measured only by famous one-off events. Riverside, which has a staff of 130, is constantly putting together panels, workshops, speeches and organizing campaigns, making its resources available to completely secular groups that support its mission.
Like many Upper-Westsiders, I have a special relationship with Riverside. The church is hard to miss coming uptown in Riverside Park or driving downtown on the West Side Highway, towering over the horizon. I don’t recall my first visit there, when I was baptized by then Pastor William Sloane Coffin, but I do remember attending Easter services there when the Reverend James Forbes was running the show. I’ve seen Jesse Jackson speak in its pulpit, partied in its basement and even played pick-up basketball on its courts. Riverside Church is the perfect confluence of energy and spirituality, dissent and dignity, an encapsulation of New York City’s gorgeous mosaic.