MLK Jr.’s Anti-War Challenge

Martin Luther King, Jr. is rightly celebrated for his preaching of racial equality, civil rights and nonviolent methods of protest and personal relations. What King is much less celebrated for is his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and to all war in general–the application of nonviolent civil change to international policy.  King put his anti-war challenge into an eloquent speech of April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in NYC. What follows is an excerpt of King’s speech:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

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. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.”

“This dreadful conflict” was the Vietnam War and in his speech King went on to explain why that war was a moral and political mistake. But the title of King’s speech was “Beyond Vietnam”, for what he wanted to address was nothing less than the brutality of American foreign policy, our too-ready dependence on war as a way of resolving conflicts. So King went on, speaking as the religious and learned man he was:

“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

(MLK Jr. monument, Washington, D.C. Photo by Alphabet1995 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, love or nonviolence as weapons for the defense of our “national security” is, to put it mildly, not much in vogue at the moment. While almost all Americans can agree that democracy means we do not resort to violence in our relations with each other (despite our incongruous and barbaric support for the death penalty), in matters of foreign policy and the never-ending “war on terror”, many say that we must keep spending a tremendous amount on weapons of war and be ready to sacrifice even our civil liberties if necessary. This is a potent fear talking, and King counseled us to choose to reject such fear:

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

As our government continues to rely on violence in foreign lands, sowing more hatred than peace, King’s words remain a challenge to all Americans.

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