King and Obama Agree: We Need a New Press Corps

Yesterday in a characteristically eloquent speech, Barack Obama honored the great legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King himself gave his controversial speech — "Why I Am Against the War in Vietnam" — a speech that is often quoted, for good reason. But Obama didn’t just call for unity: he challenged his brothers and sisters to live up to King’s legacy of tolerance:

For most of this country’s history, we in the African American
community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man.
And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still
sometimes plays – on the job, in the schools, in our health care system
and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of
our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll
acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s
vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing
them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in
our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as
competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division
across all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out
on television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it
even crept into the campaign for President, with charges and
counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of
illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation.

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with
us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the
stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame our plight
on others – all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face
– war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to
build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer
afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we
must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before
the hour grows too late.

Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the
faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and
fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in
our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that
exists in our hearts.

In this context, it’s fascinating to hear the thoughts of King himself on that legacy.

Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our
total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its
newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of
Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we
can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we
non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on
the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They
praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press
was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was
saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be
non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark.
There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press
that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but
will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little
brown Vietnamese children. There’s something wrong with that press!

For the full transcript (plus an audio file, if you want to hear the man himself), please see below.

Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967:

A Real Audio file hosted here.

The sermon which I am preaching this morning in a sense is not the
usual kind of sermon, but it is a sermon and an important subject,
nevertheless, because the issue that I will be discussing today is one
of the most controversial issues confronting our nation. I’m using as a
subject from which to preach, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam."

Now, let me make it clear in the beginning, that I see this war as
an unjust, evil, and futile war. I preach to you today on the war in
Vietnam because my conscience leaves me with no other choice. The time
has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. In
international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most
nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the
incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that
blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial
patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery.
Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. "Ye shall
know the truth," says Jesus, "and the truth shall set you free." Now,
I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with
Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a
period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time
when silence becomes betrayal.

       
       

            

The
truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they
call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of
inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their
government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human
spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of
conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.
Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing, as they often do
in the case of this dreadful conflict, we’re always on the verge of
being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on. Some of us who
have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that
the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak.
We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited
vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for in all our
history there has never been such a monumental dissent during a war, by
the American people.

Polls reveal that almost fifteen million
Americans explicitly oppose the war in Vietnam. Additional millions
cannot bring themselves around to support it. And even those millions
who do support the war [are] half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden.
This reveals that millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying
of smooth patriotism, to the high grounds of firm dissent, based upon
the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Now, of course,
one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there
are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a
dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use
every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people
are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that
those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war
in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a
person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.

Yes,
we must stand, and we must speak. [tape skip]…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. And so this morning, I speak to you on this issue, because I am
determined to take the Gospel seriously. And I come this morning to my
pulpit to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.

This
sermon is not addressed to Hanoi, or to the National Liberation Front.
It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to
overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a
collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Nor is it an attempt to
make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue,
nor to overlook the role they must play in a successful resolution of
the problem. This morning, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and
the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans, who
bear the greatest responsibility, and entered a conflict that has
exacted a heavy price on both continents.

Now, since I am a
preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven
major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision.
There is…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
that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and
white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and
new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the
program broken as if it was 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. And you may not know it,
my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each
enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person
classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for
salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled
to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and 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 hope of the
poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their
husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative
to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who
had been crippled by 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. So we have been repeatedly faced
with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as
they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat
them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal
solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that
they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I
could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My
third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows
out of my experience in the ghettos 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 non-violent action; for
they ask and write me, "So what about Vietnam?" They ask if our 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 first having 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 the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot
be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They
applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of
its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands
of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we
can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we
non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on
the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They
praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press
was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was
saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be
non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark.
There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press
that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but
will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward little
brown Vietnamese children. There’s something wrong with that press!

As
if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America
were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in
1964. And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was not just
something taking place, but it was a commission–a commission to work
harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of Man. This
is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances. But even if it
were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my
commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of
this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes
marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it
be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men, for
communists and capitalists, for their children and ours, for black and
white, for revolutionary and conservative. Have they forgotten that my
ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that
he died for them? What, then, can I say to the Vietcong, or to Castro,
or to Mao, as a faithful minister to Jesus Christ? Can I threaten them
with death, or must I not share with them my life? Finally, I must be
true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be the
son of the Living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is
this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. And because I believe that
the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and
helpless and outcast children, I come today to speak for them. And as I
ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to
understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the
people of that peninsula. I speak not now of the soldiers of each side,
not of the military government of Saigon, but simply of the people who
have been under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades
now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be
no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know these people
and hear their broken cries.

Now, let me tell you the truth about
it. They must see Americans as strange liberators. Do you realize that
the Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a
combined French and Japanese occupation. And incidentally, this was
before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh.
And this is a little-known fact, and these people declared themselves
independent in 1945. They quoted our Declaration of Independence in
their document of freedom, and yet our government refused to recognize
them. President Truman said they were not ready for independence. So we
fell victim as a nation at that time of the same deadly arrogance that
has poisoned the international situation for all of these years. France
then set out to reconquer its former colony. And they fought eight
long, hard, brutal years trying to re-conquer Vietnam. You know who
helped France? It was the United States of America. It came to the
point that we were meeting more than eighty percent of the war costs.
And even when France started despairing of its reckless action, we did
not. And in 1954, a conference was called at Geneva, and an agreement
was reached, because France had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. But
even after that, and after the Geneva Accord, we did not stop. We must
face the sad fact that our government sought, in a real sense, to
sabotage the Geneva Accord. Well, after the French were defeated, it
looked as if independence and land reform would come through the Geneva
agreement. But instead the United States came and started supporting a
man named Diem who turned out to be one of the most ruthless dictators
in the history of the world. He set out to silence all opposition.
People were brutally murdered because they raised their voices against
the brutal policies of Diem. And the peasants watched and cringed as
Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition. The peasants watched as all
this was presided over by United States influence and by increasing
numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency
that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may
have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to
offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and
peace. And who are we supporting in Vietnam today? It’s a man by the
name of general Ky [Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky] who fought with the
French against his own people, and who said on one occasion that the
greatest hero of his life is Hitler. This is who we are supporting in
Vietnam today. Oh, our government and the press generally won’t tell us
these things, but God told me to tell you this morning. The truth must
be told.

The only change came from America as we increased our
troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly
corrupt, inept, and without popular support and all the while the
people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and
democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and
consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move
sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers
into concentration camps, where minimal social needs are rarely met.
They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go,
primarily women, and children and the aged. They watch as we poison
their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep
as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the
precious trees. They wander into the towns and see thousands of
thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs
on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our
soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their
sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. We have
destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the
village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have
cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist
revolutionary political force, the United Buddhist Church. This is a
role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful
revolutions impossible but refusing to give up the privileges and the
pleasures that comes from the immense profits of overseas investments.
I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world
revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a
person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives
and property rights are considered more important than people, the
giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are
incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will
soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our
present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good
Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One
day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so
that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they
make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than
flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look
uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous
indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual
capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa,
and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the
social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It
will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and
say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has
everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say
of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business
of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with
orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins
of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody
battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged,
cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that
continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than
on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Oh,
my friends, if there is any one thing that we must see today is that
these are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the
wounds 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.
They are saying, unconsciously, as we say in one of our freedom songs,
"Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around!" It is a sad fact that because
of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, 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 a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against
our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the
revolutions that 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, we shall boldly challenge unjust mores, and thereby speed
up the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and
hill shall be made low, and the rough places shall be made plain, and
the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be
revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

A genuine
revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties
must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now
develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to
preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a
worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe,
race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing,
unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and
misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the
world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute
necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I’m not
speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that
force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme
unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the
door which leads to ultimate reality. This
Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is
beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: "Let us love one
another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of God and
knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. If we
love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us."

Let
me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America.
I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow
in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our
beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out
against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can
be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am
disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with
the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We
are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national
disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and
militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly
structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded in the
insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in the image
of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an
heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are
neither conferred by, nor derived from the State–they are God-given.
Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy
place to inhabit. But America’s strayed away, and this unnatural
excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left
hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality.

It
is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back
home. Come home, America. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger
writes, and having writ moves on." I call on Washington today. I call
on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I call on
the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand
on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don’t
let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine,
messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a
way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I
can hear God saying to America, "You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t
change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power,
and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my
name. Be still and know that I’m God."

Now it isn’t easy to stand
up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When
you tell the truth and take a stand, sometimes it means that you will
walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a
job…means being abused and scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight
year old child asking a daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?"
And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ
means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes
before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we
must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and
bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination.
And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that
there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the
moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing
"We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live
forever." We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right:
"Truth pressed to earth will rise again." We shall overcome because
James Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong
forever on the throne." Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall
overcome because the bible is right: "You shall reap what you sow."
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a
stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the
jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of
brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when
justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty
stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the
lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under
his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words
of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up
the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing
in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!" With this faith, we’ll sing it
as we’re getting ready to sing it now. Men will beat their swords into
plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not
rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore. And I
don’t know about you, I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Text from Pacifica Radio/KPFA/UC Berkeley Library’s Media Resource Center’s site. The sermon was at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, not the Riverside Church — that speech is here.

       

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