The Fact of Being Black: History, Politics, Culture I (A New Series)
Los Angeles, 4 April 2017
A masterful orator, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – as he is invariably described in the black community – was perhaps at his prophetic best when, fifty years ago on this day, he handed down a searing indictment of America’s war in and on Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York. Four years earlier, on the steps of Washington’s Mall, King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; and it is doubtless the optimism of that speech, and its palpable demonstration of his still enduring faith, despite the massive provocations to which he had been subjected by white racists, in the promise of America that has ensured its status both as a landmark document of political spirituality and as a signal achievement in American political rhetoric.
The “dream” of which Dr. King spoke in 1963 would soon sour. By the mid-1960s, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam had considerably escalated. Opposition to the war had been growing; even some who opposed the advance of communism in Vietnam had qualms about the manner in which the US had taken over the role of the former colonial power, France. Thus far Dr. King had spoken comparatively little against the war, though his unflinching advocacy of nonviolent resistance to segregation and the virulent racism of American society did not leave in doubt his own views about the illegitimacy of war in general and, certainly, the absolute immorality of a war launched upon a people thousands of miles away who, as Ho Chi Minh had declared, “have never done any harm to the United States” and would not capitulate, or even agree to so-called peace talks, “under the threat of bombs”.
By 1966-67, the Vietnam War had become the defining, one might say transcendent, issue in American public life. Some in the movement may have been tempted into thinking that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the legal framework for redressing the extreme liabilities from which black people suffered had been put into place and thus the problems of African Americans were on their way to being resolved. Dr. King and his associates, and black people throughout the US, of course knew better. By this time, Dr. King had come around to the view that the two great movements of the mid-sixties, the Civil Rights agitation and the resistance to the war, had to be linked together. There was another pressing consideration: in war abroad, as at home in the US, to the extent that the black person could call a country where he or she had been enslaved, killed, tortured, maimed, lynched, raped and ridiculed a “home”, the black person had borne the brunt of the toll. A disproportionate number of young black men had been drafted to fight an imperialist war and lay down their lives for a country which otherwise had no use for them.
It is against this backdrop that on 4 April 1967 Dr. King stepped foot inside that “magnificent house of worship” called Riverside Church to deliver what remains to this day one of the most extraordinary indictments not just of the American war machine but of American society. The particular risk that Dr. King took that day is hard to divine today, fifty years later, when it is assumed that opposition to the war was rather common; in any case, Dr. King’s singular achievement may not be transparent to those who have hear of Muhammad Ali’s fearless resistance or have grown up on the idea that Malcolm had by far a sharper and livelier tongue. Dr. King’s many biographers have noted that he had been advised that he should not address the question of the Vietnam War: the good faith that he had earned among many white people might well be squandered, and even his fellow black leaders were rather adamant that, as a “civil rights” leader, Dr. King should continue only to hammer away at the injustices facing black people. Dr. King’s own father was among those who would help to weaken a resolution that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had put forward in opposition to the war. Yet, as Dr. King told his audience, the time had come to recognize that, in relation to Vietnam, silence is betrayal. Speaking from the “the burnings” of his own heart, he perforce had to question the path which was leading to the destruction of Vietnam, even if many questioned him about the “wisdom” of his intervention: “At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.”
What would follow that evening would be a meticulous and mesmerizing dissection of the structural roots of American racism and the inextricable link between militarism and injustice. Dr. King himself would outline “seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the fold of [his] moral vision”, but his oration can be distilled into a few major points. First, Dr. King ponders over the cruel irony of young black men “crippled by our society” being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asian which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”. In “brutal solidarity”, Dr. King writes of young black and white American soldiers, they burned “the huts of a poor village” or mowed down the enemy, “but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.” Secondly, Dr. King describes, not so much in chilling detail as in lacerating language, the destruction wrought in Vietnam by air and on land. The “women and children and the aged” are sent on the move by bombs, herded off “into concentration camps”: “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. . . . They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.”
A country that oppresses sections of its own people at home cannot be expected to do otherwise abroad. Every colonial regime brutalized some of its own people, the weaker and defenseless sectors of its own society, before it brutalized external others. One fundamental contribution of Dr. King’s Riverside Church oration was to bring home to the American people the inextricable relationship of American militarism in Vietnam and the desperate attempts by white racists to enforce racial segregation and discrimination in the US. The country that denied black people the dignity that permits a person to call himself or herself free was the same country that would seek to virtually obliterate the Vietnamese. Thus it is that Dr. King would go on to characterize his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. Yet he does not permit this damning indictment to eviscerate his hope that America might one day be brought around to a different view of the world, such that it is no longer, as he says, “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” But “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” Dr. King insists, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
It is a matter of record that Dr. King would be roundly criticized by nearly every major newspaper and periodical in the country. One of the few magazines that stood by him was, not surprisingly, the Nation. The Washington Post, which had been supportive of the war, stated with unvarnished arrogance that “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence”; moreover, Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country, and to his people.” The supposed bastion of ‘true news’ and liberal opinion, the New York Times, which had been critical of the war, spoke in a rather identical idiom when it lamented that Dr. King had engaged in a “wasteful and self-defeating” exercise that had needlessly sought to fuse “two public problems that are distinct and separate” and thereby paved the way for an outcome that “could very well be disastrous for both causes.” It is not, however, the supreme irrelevance of the observations of these two highly regarded newspapers that should be of most concern to us; rather, it is the indubitable fact that Dr. King’s speech might well be delivered today with barely any change, except for the alteration of some bare facts of life, that should give us to pause to consider whether we have even to the slightest degree rendered obsolete the moral concerns which framed Dr. King’s majestic set of reflections.