After Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize and saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it would have been easy for him to hang the big "Mission Accomplished" banner and rest on his laurels, maybe even cash in with some big-bucks speeches or writing his memoirs.
He didn't do that. One of the reasons that we honor King today is that he never stopped marching, even as the causes became more controversial and the dreams became more impossible, such as ending senseless wars like the one that was raging in Vietnam. The picture at top shows King marching against the war in Vietnam in April 1967. That same month, King spoke at the Riverside Church in Harlem on the subject of the war. You'll hear King's remarkable, awe-inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech many times today, but it's doubtful you'll hear this:
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 at the outset 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 as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were 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. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
He went on to say:
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 nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own 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 having first 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.
It's chilling that King spoke those words on April 4, 1967 -- exactly one year later to the day, he was assassinated. Tragically, the American government faces some of the very same choices today that we faced 42 year ago, with that "suction tube" renamed as Iraq. Which is why that when we honor such a great American today, it's a good idea to remember this other side of Martin Luther King.