Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader in the non-violent civil rights movement. The racial fractures in our society were deep and obvious to anyone of color and to whites who could step away from the cultural norms and see the injustice and violence at the hands of white individuals, society and institutions. It was a big enough topic for one fight.
But intertwined with the racial injustice was the deep poverty that disproportionately affected people of color. Money and opportunities didn’t flow through the generations as they had in my white neighborhoods.
As King and other leaders of the civil rights movement began to teach non-violence to people working for racial justice, they came face to face with the multiple layers of violence inherent in the escalating Vietnam War.
In addition to noting that his own government, not the “oppressed in the ghettos,” was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King said, “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”*
While no one I knew went to fight in Vietnam, many without access to college deferments were sent off to war. As happened in World War II, black young men were sent around the globe to fight for liberties that they hadn’t found at home. As a result of the Vietnam War, money that had begun to flow into poverty programs was abruptly diverted to cover the costs of battle.
King saw the interconnectedness between racism, poverty and war, and “was compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” He broke a silence that the people in political power did not want him to shatter. He complicated the civil rights fight. He spoke the truth.
I wish I’d listened in 1967. But I hear these words loud and clear today. Race, class and national violence are big topics that still cut through our world.
It is time to wake up.
The hour is near midnight.
Alert, I listen for guidance about my next step. What are you hearing?
*Third in a series honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break Silence, Delivered April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City. The next in the series is titled, “Sometimes Confession is the Best Response.”