The Martin Luther King Jr. who we remember as a nation — the one for whom we have named a national holiday — is the Martin Luther King Jr. who articulated a dream. He is not the man who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech as a whole — not the man who insisted that now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood, nor the man who declared that he would not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The Martin Luther King Jr. we remember is the one who, in a misty voice, devoted two minutes of a twenty minute oratory to considering a future in which one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
He is the Martin Luther King Jr. of our collective imagination, for whom a well-wrought wish and a positive attitude is enough to make a change.
The Martin Luther King Jr. who we as a nation have decided to set aside is the one who, in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York, delivered “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He is the man who told us in that speech about feeling the hypocrisy of preaching non-violence to young African Americans, when they could see very well that our own nation uses massive doses of violence to solve its problems. He is the man who pointed out that American soldiers are disproportionately poor and brown — that Vietnam had the effect of taking
young black 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.
In part, we do not commemorate the aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that are wrapped up in “Beyond Vietnam” because a chorus of voices at the time condemned the speech as too radical, as communist, and as contrary to the interests of a Civil Rights Movement that was finally gaining traction on issues of social justice at home, and that stood only to lose by associating its cause with the most divisive foreign policy questions of the day.
And in part, those are not the aspects of King’s legacy we commemorate because they are too deeply based in his theology. His message stems from Christian ministry, he tells us, and the relationship between ministry and the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war.
What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
And yet, for those of us who are interested in the question of civility, “Beyond Vietnam” is the speech by Martin Luther King Jr. that we should be thinking about, perhaps most of all. Because even as he spoke with conviction against the war in Vietnam – even as he waded into fraught political waters, equipped not with a conciliatory attitude but with the vehemence of the fierce urgency of now – Dr. King’s methodology was civility.
Dr. King’s articulation of how we achieve peace is the Institute’s articulation of what civility looks like: claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. He asks us to understand those people whom we label enemies, and to consider them not as soldiers, but simply as people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. He asks us to ask ourselves: how might they see us?
The central argument of “Beyond Vietnam,” in fact, amounts to an extended definition of civility. He tells his audience:
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
Or in the words of the Institute: here is how we start dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Here is how we start negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.
“Beyond Vietnam” will perhaps never achieve the same status in the American imagination as “I Have a Dream.” And we will, perhaps, never commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. quite so enthusiastically for his incisive social critique as we do for that one moment of his transcendent, unifying vision. But as we celebrate his holiday today, we would do well to keep “Beyond Vietnam” in mind. Because after all, what is civility worth if, when we are at our most vehement and our most political, it is not the signpost that keeps us on track?