50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave what some consider to be his most controversial speech. Exactly one year later, he was shot.
The speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, was delivered in a New York City church on April 4, 1967.
On Tuesday, April 4, Bellingham’s Veterans for Peace hosted an event to listen to sections of and discuss the speech and how it is still relevant half a century later.
In the speech, King took a stance against the Vietnam War and the events that led up to it. He spoke out against policies created by the U.S. government and the powers at be, saying “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.”
One of the planners of the event, Ellen Murphy, described the speech as the most powerful and dangerous of all of King’s speeches.
“He (King) made it crystal clear of what the roots and structures of such an evil thing as the war on Vietnam are,” Murphy said. “In this speech, he calls them the giant triplets of racism, militarism and extreme materialism.”
The goal of the speech was that we, as a country, need a radical revolution of values, Murphy said.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” King said. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Yet, 50 years later, things have not changed, according to Western Washington University professor Vernon Johnson, who spoke at the event.
“We are the most militaristic government and country in world history,” Johnson said. “According to the Peterson Foundation, the United States had spent more on military spending in 2015 then the next seven countries combined.”
Bill Distler, another speaker from the event, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He described how, at the time the speech was given, major news sources ‘bashed’ King, and his public approval rating dropped.
“The war at that time was popular,” Distler said. “He (King) was advised by most of his friends, ‘Don’t do this.’”
Despite the backlash when the speech was given, King’s speech is still being discussed.
“We are not a force for peace in the world,” said Distler. “Dr. King says we’re the most powerful nation in the world, surely we can go down the path of promoting peace instead of war. We’re not doing that yet. It’s still relevant today.”
One year after his speech to the day, King was shot and killed.
“The day he died, I was in Vietnam,” Distler said. “My unit came in from the field, the news went around, and people started crying and screaming and taking their gear off and throwing it on the ground and kicking it, saying ‘they killed him.’”
At the time, however, Distler was still in support of the war, like much of the public. It wasn’t until after the war that Distler began to take King’s speech seriously.
“I don’t know when the speech started sinking it, but I’m glad it did,” Distler said.