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King Saw Through the Rhetoric of War

Jan. 14, 2007 — One year to the day before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech to a meeting of concerned clergy and lay people at the Riverside Church in New York City. The focus of the gathering was the Vietnam War. The speech, one of King's lesser known, is chillingly pertinent today.
It is a Source tradition to run this speech every year on Martin Luther King Day.
This is the fourth year. The violence and brutality of war in Iraq have continued unabated. Not only does President Bush have no plan for withdrawal, but now he has announced plans to send even more of our young people across the world to fight a war that has nothing to do with them. We feel that King's words continue to serve as a call for an end to this conflict.
The connection King made between war and the poor is particularly poignant given the statistics about the poverty rate of children in the territory revealed in this year's Kids Count Data Book, released this week. These are the children most likely to have to face the madness if these kinds of conflicts continue.
"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. 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."

— Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967

Poverty, the breakdown of public education and the attendant hopelessness have continued and worsened since that day nearly 39 years ago. The young and not-so-young men and women of the Virgin Islands have been yanked from their homes and families to serve in a chaotic war half-way around the world that few understand.
The cacophony of rage, exacerbated by alcohol and drug abuse, has drowned out King's message closer to home.
And where do we find hope in a world of greed and self-centeredness that overcomes everything in its path — even the will of the people?
In offering this reminder — this memory of a man whose courage and intelligence, whose commitment to non-violence and love literally changed the world — we hope that we can find inspiration, renewed faith and energy to pick up where King left off and say no to violence as a solution for anything.
The best tribute we can provide is to offer the words of the man who stood — far above the crowd — in his commitment to peace and an end to poverty and ignorance.
To read the entire speech, click on the title: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.

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