Friday, April 04, 2008

Two Speeches

This has been a day for reading and thinking about two speeches given a year apart, 40 and 41 years ago.

On this day in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The title was "Beyond Vietnam: a time to break silence".

The storm of criticism that followed was prefigured by this passage early in the speech: "Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. 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? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

A little later in the speech came a phrase that was a particular target of criticism: "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." Time Magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi". The Washington Post said that he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

The critics generally ripped that accurate and inconvenient phrase about our government's violence out of its social and spiritual context. This is the paragraph in which it appeared:

"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

Read on and compare his description of the violence being done against the Vietnamese land and people with what has been in Iraq. Think about the reaction if he spoke today, particularly if he were the pastor of a presidential candidate.

Exactly one year after delivering that speech, he was shot dead. The killer probably wasn't thinking of the symbolism of his timing. Still, that speech, that anniversary, and that death feel spiritually linked.

The second speech, given the night before the assassination, is noted for its foreshadowing of his death: "I've been to the mountain top".

Read 'em and weep, as is said in another context. Would that we will all be able to say something, religious or not, in the elevated spirit of  what MLK Jr. said that last night as he finished his last speech:

"And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

"And I don't mind.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy, tonight.

"I'm not worried about anything.

"I'm not fearing any man!

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"

And those were his last public words.

1 comment:

Brother Billy said...

Another speech - RFK's

If you haven't gone back to read Bobby Kennedy's brief speech on MLK's assassination, or to watch it again on YouTube, here's the text. It's a good reminder of how the right words from the right person can make a difference.

First, a recent piece from an Indiana newspaper on the circumstances of the speech:
RFK on MLK: After a national tragedy, a speech kept Indianapolis at peace
Barrett Newkirk. The Herald Bulletin, Anderson IN, Feb. 9, 2008,

"....Hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Robert Kennedy spoke to a crowd of mostly black supporters in Indianapolis.

"Six weeks later, Kennedy was also dead. But the words he spoke in Indianapolis, on the night of April 4, 1968, are remembered for their honesty and ability to calm an angered community....

"Kennedy’s words kept Indianapolis peaceful.

"People toward the front the crowd had come early to be close to Kennedy and were less likely to know that King was dead.... Many latecomers, however, had heard the news and arrived with weapons, ready for a fight that didn’t occur.

"Riots in 76 cities following King’s death left 46 people dead and thousands injured, but Indianapolis was “blessed” to have Robert Kennedy, as one eyewitness said in [a documentary film] “A Ripple of Hope.”...."

Here's the text:
Robert F. Kennedy
Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1968, Indianapolis IN

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some -- some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.