Though often dismissed as false correlation (patternicity or apophenion), the effect, if not function, of seemingly meaningful coincidence is to make us sometimes take a closer look at what is presented. Such is the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1968, which occurred exactly a year to the day after he gave his most controversial and, for him, most consequential speech. This might pass without need for further comment if it were not for the fact that the speech, and the radical King who made it, have largely been erased from public memory and conscience.
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” is a masterpiece of political oratory, comparable in style and power to the well known Letter From a Birmingham Jail. King gave the speech against the urging
of his closest advisors and many of his allies in the civil rights movement. Attacked in the press after giving it, he lost overnight the support of many both inside and outside the Johnson administration, as
he knew he would, vilified nationally as a traitor and a communist. It is notable that after overcoming his own apathy and reluctance to make the speech, which he references at its start, King chose to commit himself fully. Beginning with a thorough indictment of the war’s brutality and injustice, he goes on to consider the war as “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”
From this particular war, he moves on to indict the entire machinery of War, the economic, political, and social engines that make it run. Describing a “pattern of suppression”, he points to the role of our
military in the need to maintain social stability for our investments ” in Guatemala, Venezuela, and Peru; the “glaring contrast of wealth and poverty” which sees “the 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.” In short, though he never uses the word, the speech is an indictment of empire, of the devastation it causes both abroad and at home. “When machines and
computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
In light of this speech, it is easy to understand the fierce opposition of the Reagan administration, and many in congress and state legislatures, to the proposal of a national holiday honoring King. They feared that his more radical ideas would gain currency in the society at large. The irony is that turning King into a national icon, while carefully controlling and sanitizing his image and ideas, has worked well to maintain an increasingly lethal status quo. Every year the ritual is repeated, the lip service is given. A cardboard cut-out of the man is wheeled out of the closet, he has a dream, he goes to the mountaintop, and is wheeled back inside. Mainstream politicians who would never dare to repeat his most dangerous ideas openly, attend pancake breakfasts in his honor. Those that do speak out are simply not given any press.
While it might be tempting to place King far to the left of what many would consider the mainstream American tradition, it is also true that this tradition has a regenerative radical history, and that the
center could swing propitiously to the left. “Beyond Vietnam” could place King beyond easy distinctions of right and left. It is a speech given by a man who once described himself as ” more socialistic than capitalistic”, but it is also a deeply and radically patriotic speech, the lament and warm fury of a person who loved and prayed for the soul of his nation, from well within the prophetic tradition that periodically gives it life.
In a world of endless war, accelerating poverty and conflict, fossilized politics, and looming catastrophic ecosystem collapse, we would do well to remember that King saw it all coming and tried to warn us against it. Maybe the conversation that America needs to have with itself and the rest of the world should begin with King, a man for whom we named a day, but whose words we have yet to encounter
honestly. It is time, way past time, to break the many silences.