“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
These words belong, unmistakably, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The words were part of a speech he delivered 50 years ago April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination.
Racism, materialism and militarism were the basic themes of a speech that he mulled over for months and at last found the moment and the courage to “break the betrayal of silence.”
It was a speech that, although loudly applauded by the audience that day at Riverside Church in Harlem, brought a wave of condemnation from leading proponents of the mainstream media, and even several of King’s fellow clergy, which was no surprise because many of them had chastised him at the beginning of his ministry of peace and justice.
What we have learned since his death is that he was even more outspoken against the war in Vietnam in private conversations and on phone calls that were being recorded by the FBI.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” he said, “and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation.”
King’s prophecy, his outrage against the government, one he called the most violent on the planet, made him a larger target for assault. But he felt that strong “urgency of the now” to speak out, though he was wrong to believe that he was alone in such a message. Malcolm X and members of SNCC, including Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), were among the notables who were not afraid to speak truth to power.
Even so, King was the loudest, most disturbing voice to the status quo, particularly for the leaders of the nation who refused to accept his moral stance against their determination to waste money on an immoral war.
To make his point, King summoned the words of poets, such as Langston Hughes, and closed with lines from James Russell Lowell. When he said, “War is not the answer,” he was repeating words most popularly connected to Marvin Gaye or Edwin Starr.
Many Black nationalists were excited by King’s reach beyond civil rights, and even he said in the speech that he was more than a civil rights leader. Besides the war in Vietnam, he touched on issues that were troubling the globe, including the lingering effects of colonialism and imperialism. (We learned later that the U.S. military planes had dropped more than 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia with the purpose of cutting off the Viet Cong supply line.)
And Black nationalists were also pleased to hear King mention the word reparations, though he meant it in connection with the war in Southeast Asia.
But he was clearly moving in a direction that targeted a much larger swath of misery and desperation, and his final marches in Memphis for the sanitation workers is a clear indication of his growing class analysis.
The power of King’s words is just as relevant now and resonate with a timeless conviction, never more meaningful than in today’s political crisis.