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King would still call the U.S. ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’

Two powerful articles recently appeared that discussed the timeless relevance of Dr. King’s historic April 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” oration at New York’s Riverside Church, in which he condemned that war and U.S. militarism abroad. They were written by the Rev. Liz Theoharis (Tom Dispatch, April 4) and political activists Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen (Counterpunch, April 2).

“Beyond Vietnam” is arguably the greatest political oration in U.S. history, written in large part by the late historian Vincent Harding, Jr. It has been completely overshadowed, however, by King’s “I Have a Dream” oration at the August 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. The primary focus of that march was economic issues, not notions of freedom alone.

In his Vietnam oration, King denounced the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and saw the war as “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He later asserted that “the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism” were all linked. We could not “get rid of one without getting rid of the others [and] the whole structure of American life must be changed.” These strong, bracing, and true words remain very relevant today.

Few who now say they admire King seem to recall that his Vietnam oration was condemned by the political and corporate media establishment, Black civil rights leaders, and the public at large. A Harris poll taken in May 1967 revealed that 73 percent of Americans opposed his antiwar position, including 50 percent of African Americans.

Solomon and Cohen remind us that on the anniversary of his assassination (April 4, 1968) we get all sorts of tributes to King, even from alleged progressive organizations who ignore his passionate anti-militarist ideals that he expressed during the final year of his life.

Many progressives remain nostalgic about King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech and his efforts against racism. But the Dr. King who lived one more year from that 1967 oration has been disappeared. He explicitly condemned what he called “the madness of militarism” — the core value of U.S. foreign policy that has been in place for ages. Solomon and Cohen also condemn politicians and mainstream media commentators who support the establishment views and ignore what King actually said about U.S. wars, as if it is not relevant for our time.

What compounds the madness of militarism today is the silence around King’s actual anti-war critique, a silence that covers most political views, including organizations who have been active in the struggle against domestic economic injustice and institutionalized racism. But when it comes to the organized and institutionalized militarism that has rained terror and devastation upon the world and whose victims are mostly people of color, the truth is that many of these U.S. organizations have essentially left their antiwar ideals behind.

According to Solomon and Cohen, it’s not just the elite media, but many allegedly progressive organizations “that are taking a dive in the fight against the warfare state.” This undermines their fine efforts on a number of areas with important and needed work. At the same time, they have betrayed the actual anti-war legacy of King, whom so many claim to venerate.

Reverend Theoharis asserts that Washington’s violent approach to foreign policy that marked U.S. wars abroad was only “half of the spiritual death” that Dr. King warned about back in 1967. The other critical part was how militarism was destroying the moral ideals of this nation. She argues that we are a nation that has been consumed by violence and crisis, taking various forms: another mass shooting, the continued and deepening militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police to move in and get rid of the homeless in their encampments. In the background, as King noted 54 years ago, is the relentless violence of U.S. forever wars that have wasted trillions of dollars that could heal and end deep-seated problems here at home, while slaughtering, maiming and displacing millions of people abroad.

To fully understand, confront and abolish the madness of militarism that is destroying this nation and leaving death and destruction in its path, we should consider King’s powerful assertion that addresses the root causes of our obsession with war and imperialism: “The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.”

John Marciano lives in Talent. He co-organized King’s visit to Buffalo on November 9, 1967, and was King’s driver that evening.