One of the things I think people may not completely grok about us loathsome and reviled baby boomers is that our politically formative years were a little bit unusual --- when we were young our leaders and heroes kept getting assassinated. You can imagine how that might shape a person's view of politics. Fortunately that hasn't happened in a long time, which is something we should be grateful for. But for a while, in the 60s, it seemed to kids like me that this was normal.
Martin Luther King's assassination felt inevitable --- especially to him. In his last speech, he famously said:
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. 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."
I doubt that anyone in that audience thought he was being dramatic. America was in a violent period. Everyone knew it.
King had been at the center of the storm for many years but had recently come in for a particularly rough time since he had spoken out against the war in Vietnam. He was an icon, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was accused of tainting his legacy and hurting his cause for standing up against the war. He led his movement beyond its original mandate and became a true leader for peace, often saying things that were so provocative you can't help but be moved by his tremendous courage. (At least I can't. That is the other side of the liberal baby boomer ethos --- our ridiculously earnest appreciation for public protest and brave speeches. When we were young, these things seemed imperative.)
Almost a year to the day before King was killed in Memphis, he gave a speech about Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York City. It isn't quite as well known as his other speeches, but it's an important one.
Consider just how radical this was in 1967: he took the political and military establishment on directly and fiercely, long before it was fashionable and at great cost to himself. He spoke up for the victims of the war on all sides, tried to explain the history of the conflict, refused to demonize the communist "enemy" and accused the American government of manipulating events and lying to the people. You must read it in its entirety to get the full flavor of its radicalism. It's probably wrong of me to excerpt it, (though I will.)
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
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 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.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.
Change a few words and that could have been said today about Iraq, no? It was incendiary at the time, when post WWII America was actually far more reflexively jingoistic than it is today (if you can believe that.)
For a long time now, we've been talking here and elsewhere about how tired everyone is of boomer issues, boomer concerns and the ridiculous obsession this culture has with the 1960s. I agree with all of that. But it is important, on a day like today, for us to recognize just how big the issues were (and are), how huge the risks to those who spoke out, and the tremendous sacrifices a few brave people made for fundamental, meaningful change. The Reverend Martin Luther King used every bit of political capital at his disposal to advocate for equality and peace and he paid the ultimate price.
There was nothing frivolous or self-serving about this speech, or trite and old fashioned about its sentiments. It was American to its core, in the very best sense of the word:
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."
Perhaps the 60s are dull and boring now --- history. But they aren't irrelevant. Revolutionary words like that, and heroes like King, are evergreen.
UPDATE: Perlstein excerpts his new book today to tell the story of King's radicalism. Don't miss it.
Oh, and buy the book!