Beyond Identity Politics: MLK’s scathing critique of the Vietnam War in his “most radical speech” troubles today’s identity politics
In the compendium of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, articles, books and sermons, “Beyond Vietnam” stands out to many on the left as the definitive evidence that King had finally become a full-blown radical. King’s speech, they argue, signified his “formal break with…political moderation”[i] because, unlike his previous speeches – which focused primarily on the issue of civil rights – “Beyond Vietnam” took aim (as one critic put it) at “the global struggle of the rich vs. poor.” [ii] Even more, it is a speech in which King tied “the American orthodoxy on foreign policy to the structures which perpetrate racial inequality domestically and also to much of the world’s suffering,”[iii] as it is also a speech in which he “linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism.”[iv]
For these critics and others, not only did such a critique make “Beyond Vietnam” radical (and King’s “most radical speech” to date);[v] it also made the speech “dangerous”[vi] – both to the “political and economic power brokers of America” and ultimately to King himself. [vii] Aidan Brown O’Shea observed that, after delivering “Beyond Vietnam,” King “went from being an admired voice for acceptable racial progress in the form of the end of legal segregation among white moderates,” to being “a truly oppositional figure.”[viii] His speech may have even “accelerated,” another critic theorized, “the efforts of those who felt so threatened by” King’s “audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it.”[ix] In other words, “Beyond Vietnam” was ultimately “the speech that killed” him.[x]
It is to “Beyond Vietnam,” then, that many on the left often turn when they talk about King, and it is the speech they are likely to call upon in order to counter the commemorative “whitewashing” of King’s politics that frequently occurs on August 28 – the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – as well as every January, when King’s birthday is celebrated. “Beyond Vietnam,” moreover, is the evidence they provide to rebut conservative efforts to appropriate King’s legacy; expose the hypocrisy of government officials and others who evoke King to counsel nonviolence and political quietism in the face of injustice. It is even used by some to resist allies’ calls for nonviolence as a way to respond to and organize against unjust governmental action. Ultimately, “Beyond Vietnam” expresses “the real King,” a man who, at the end of his life, was an “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political dissident,”[xi] the “ultimate anti-establishment man,”[xii] a man who had been moving “slowly toward the philosophy of Malcolm X,”[xiii] and a “democratic socialist.”[xiv]
Without a doubt “Beyond Vietnam” is a powerful speech, and in my view it is indeed King’s most powerful. Delivered before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his assassination – the speech is, as John M. Murphy and James Jasinski argued, King’s “most comprehensive indictment of the American war effort,”[xv] an indictment through which he construed the war as a war on the poor and as a colonialist project that fed what he called the “giant triplets,” i.e., “racism, materialism, and militarism.” As such, the speech belies efforts to harness King to a conservative, status-quo supporting agenda (which, as is most often the case, tends to be solidly grounded in racism, materialism and militarism).
Moreover, because of this speech, King did face a tremendous and unrelenting backlash from the media, from political elites, from the government, and even from allies in the civil rights community – a backlash that, according to historian Taylor Branch, often reduced King to tears.
The Washington Post, for example, pronounced that by taking a stand against the Vietnam War, “‘King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,’” while Life magazine – engaging in a bit of red-baiting – declared the speech a “‘demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.’” [xvi] The Board of Directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “passed a resolution against what it saw as an attempt” on the part of King “to merge the civil rights and antiwar movements,” and Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, chided King for making “‘a serious tactical error’” by speaking out against the war.[xvii] Already treating King as an “enemy” of the state, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover stepped up the Bureau’s surveillance and smear campaign against King, all with the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson who viewed King’s speech as both a personal betrayal as well as an affront to all the work he had done on behalf of civil rights.
Yet, the left’s embrace of “Beyond Vietnam” as a radical text and of King as a full on-radical suffers from its own kind of whitewashing, namely, the subtle cleansing of King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. Almost without fail, when many speak of “Beyond Vietnam” and, more broadly, the “radical King,” they do so either by giving short shrift to King’s continued advocacy of nonviolence and love, or as is most often the case, by subordinating them altogether to King’s “more radical” critique.
In an article where he draws significantly from “Beyond Vietnam” to challenge the “character and political assassination” of King’s work, Eric Mann, for example, tells us that “King was from the outset a Black Militant and revolutionary who advocated non-violent direct action but saw ‘the Negro revolution’ as the overriding objective.”[xviii] Mann explains that “while” King “strongly argued for non-violence as both a tactical and ethical perspective,” he nevertheless “supported the right of Black people to armed self-defense and allied with advocates of armed self-defense and even armed struggle in the Black movement.”
Notice the way Mann subordinates – through his use of the words “but” and “while” – to “the Negro revolution,” to King’s presumed support for African Americans’ right to “armed self-defense,” and to King’s alliance with those who advocated armed self-defense and armed struggle, King’s commitment to nonviolence. By so doing, Mann gives the impression that King himself subordinated his commitment to nonviolence to all of these or that, at the very least, he put nonviolence and the right of self-defense on equal footing. Mann also implies that King had no quarrel whatsoever with his allies’ calls for self-defense or of armed revolution.
But the truth is a little more complicated. Yes, King did support the right of self-defense, and in his 1959 article “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” – which he wrote in response to NAACP leader Robert F. Williams’ article challenging “turn-the-other-cheekism” as a strategy for confronting white violence – he pointed out that even Gandhi sanctioned self-defense “involving weapons and bloodshed” for “those unable to master pure nonviolence.”[xix]
However, King also argued in “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966) that “it is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense” because “the line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed.” Moreover, it is “ridiculous,” King asserted, “for a Negro to raise the question of self-defense in relation to nonviolence” – just as it would be ridiculous “for a soldier on the battlefield to say he is not going to take any risks.” The soldier is on the battlefield, King pointed out, because “he believes that the freedom of his country is worth the risk of his life. The same is true of the nonviolent demonstrator. He sees the misery of his people so clearly that he volunteers to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight.”[xx]
And in “Where Do We Go From Here,” a speech King delivered before a convening of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference four months after “Beyond Vietnam,” King specifically criticized those who championed armed struggle as an option for African Americans. “When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective,” King asserted, “the answers are blatently illogical.” Those who “talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments” as well as “talk of guerrilla warfare…fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States.” Declaring that “this is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom,” King went on to call for the strategies “offered by the nonviolent movement” and to assert more forcefully that he “still” stood “by nonviolence.”
What’s clear is that for Mann, subordinating King’s advocacy of nonviolence is critical to his project of claiming King as a Black Militant and revolutionary. Yes, King “advocated for non-violent direct action,” Mann seems to suggest, but he kept armed self-defense and armed struggle on the table.
We see the same kind of rhetorical strategy as Mann’s at play in law professor Camille A. Nelson’s “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King.” Nelson writes, for example, that society “has captured and marketed Dr. King’s message to minimize the revolutionary impetus of much of his work. But the breadth of Dr. King’s work is vast. He taught about Ghandi-esque principles of love and non-violence. But he also chastised the ugly underbelly of American capitalism with its marginalizing consequences for many people of color and poor whites.”
Nelson’s uses of the word “but” locates King’s nonviolence outside of the “revolutionary impetus of much of his work.” Indeed, in one footnote where she discusses how a watered down King is taught in primary and secondary schools, she makes explicit that his nonviolence is anything but radical. She writes, “children are typically taught that King’s nonviolence, rather than his radical message, led him to achieve great success.”
In his article “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968,” Emmanuel Konde didn’t even bother to use – not even once – the word “nonviolence” in describing King’s political “transition.” Given the span of Konde’s analysis, this omission is both remarkable and troubling – and even more so given Konde’s focus on King’s transition to economic rights, for King’s final project – the Poor People’s Campaign – was one he envisioned in terms of “militant nonviolence.” As King explained in “Showdown for Nonviolence” (published twelve days after his assassination), “We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with First Amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue [of economic inequality] alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant nonviolence.”
Konde is not alone in omitting nonviolence from consideration of King’s politics. The word is also conspicuously absent from Geoff Gilbert’s “MLK’s radical vision got distorted,” an article in which Gilbert examines, among other things, how King’s “real legacy on militarism & inequality,” as expressed in “Beyond Vietnam,” has been recaptured by current activists (the protests that Gilbert examines in this article were, ironically enough, nonviolent protests). [xxi]
One unschooled in King’s work could walk away from these texts and others like it with the distinct impression that nonviolence was no longer important to King and that, prior to his assassination, he may very well have been on the cusp of aligning with calls for armed revolutionary struggle.
And yet, not only did King begin to advocate more forcefully for militant nonviolence, which he viewed as both a “positive constructive force” by which the “rage of the ghetto” could be “transmuted”[xxii] and as an effective means to curb the feverish preparations “for repression” by the “police, national guard and other armed bodies”[xxiii]; but in “Beyond Vietnam” specifically King framed and criticized the war in terms of nonviolence. In fact, in this “most radical” speech he distilled the issues of militarism, racism, and materialism to a question of love.
Identifying the “giant triplets” as symptoms of a “deeper malady within the American spirit,” King argued that the nation needed to heal itself by reclaiming its “revolutionary spirit” and declaring “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” But in order to do so the American people, he asserted, would have to undergo “a genuine revolution of values,” that is, to develop “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole” and thus answer the “call for a world-wide fellowship” that “lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation” – a call that is, “in reality” (King argued), “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”
So why is there all of this whitewashing of King’s commitment to nonviolence and love by some on the left?
It’s fair to say, I think, that conservatives’, government officials’ and other elites’ appropriation of King’s work and image go far to explain why some on the left have erased King’s nonviolence and love. These, after all, are often what conservatives and other elites tend to champion about King’s legacy – though what they offer is empty of anything resembling King’s politics of resistance and ultimately constitutes the kind of “emotional bosh” that King rejected outright. Moreover, the love and nonviolence that conservatives offer are often nothing less than barely disguised expressions of hostility toward African Americans and others.
This hostility is expressed, for example, by talk show host Glen Beck’s call for a March on Washington this August 28 – the 52nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – to protest, under the banner “ALL LIVES MATTER,” “discrimination” against Christians who reject gay marriage (Beck specifically invoked King’s “name to announce” his march and campaign).[xxiv] Not only is Beck attempting to harness the nonviolent 1963 march and King’s moral stature to his anti-gay agenda, but he does so by specifically targeting and belittling the organizing that has been taking place, under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, against police killings of unarmed African American children, women and men. “ALL LIVES MATTER,” as many have pointed out, signifies a refusal to hear and to redress African Americans’ calls for justice and a radical change in how policing is conducted in this country.
Considering efforts such as Beck’s, reclaiming King from conservative elite appropriation is, I think, an important cultural and political project.
But the conservative game doesn’t explain entirely what many on the left have been doing with King’s work. After all, it’s not as if the latter have, in the face of the conservative onslaught, defended King’s nonviolence and love or exposed the ways that conservatives actually reframe nonviolence in terms that make it compatible with state power and political quietism. If anything, some on the left have, as part of their reclamation project, conceded by omission nonviolence and love to conservative elites.
What I think is driving this whitewashing of King’s commitment – at least in part – is the rather longstanding and yet oft-unspoken assumption among some on the left about what does and does not constitute “radical” politics. As demonstrated above, some assume, in particular, that radical politics cannot possibly include nonviolence; that nonviolence and love are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of critique that King offered; that both nonviolence and love signify, in fact, the absence of radical politics. Indeed, for too many on the left, radicalism is “necessarily bound up with violence” (to borrow from Yale Professor Chris Lebron’s “Time for a New Black Radicalism”).[xxv]
Viewed in this light, King’s critique of the giant triplets and the war necessarily indicated that he was beginning to abandon nonviolence and love, since one cannot be both radical and nonviolent at the same time. It is therefore entirely in order to excise King’s nonviolence from his critique of the war, materialism, racism, and militarism as well as to align King, even if subtly, with an idea of radicalism he believed was neither revolutionary nor rational.
King, however, challenged outright such a skewed idea of radicalism. Indeed, by marrying in “Beyond Vietnam” his critique of the giant triplets to his philosophy of nonviolence and love, King explicitly defined love itself as the ultimate form of radicalism and as the means by which to reconstruct our society from the bottom-up. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued” the “self-defeating path of hate,” King lamented in his call for a “genuine revolution of values.” But “love,” he proclaimed (quoting Arnold Toynbee), “‘is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’”
For King, what made love especially radical was not only that it was the absolute antithesis of the status quo of violence – i.e., militarism, materialism, racism and, of course, the Vietnam War itself; but that it was also, in his view, the means by which we could embrace “sonship and brotherhood” as our “vocation” and thus move “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed” – beyond, that is, the narrow allegiances defined by our political and social identities.
This idea of moving “beyond” such identities (King deployed the word “beyond” several times when he talked about these) and of being “bound” together through and on the basis of love is – more than anything else, I believe – what has compelled some on the left to cleanse King of his commitment to nonviolence and love. King’s construction of both in his “most radical speech” and elsewhere was a clear rejection of what many clearly embrace: a politics grounded in and driven by the reification and reproduction of political and social identities. King implied that not only was such a politics completely inadequate to the task of ending the war in Vietnam; but it was also, he inferred, not a viable basis for radically transforming our society since it embraced the very divisions and ideas of separateness upon which the war, as well as the giant triplets, absolutely depended. For King, this politics of identity put us all on the wrong side of “the world revolution” against the “old systems of exploitation and oppression.” To get on the “right side,” we would have to undergo a “positive revolution of values,” a revolution through which we would come to see ourselves as “bound by allegiances and loyalties” much “broader and deeper” than those prescribed by our social and political identities.
“Beyond Vietnam,” then, is a speech that stands against the kind of identitarian politics that many on the left champion and that ultimately underlie their efforts to “reclaim” King. It was a speech through which he called for the creation of a different form of self – or, rather, called for our embrace of self as love and thus as opposition to, at the level of everyday life, our violent society – which is to say, really, that “Beyond Vietnam” is truly a call to nonviolence, to be the full expression of it and, in the process, to be a force that will reconstruct radically our society into one grounded in and expressive of peace and “brotherhood.”
This is not to argue, as many conservatives would have it, that King advocated or laid claim to some kind of transcendence over race, class, and the like, nor is it to claim that he never embraced these identities. “We must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful” King declared, for example, in “Where Do We Go From Here.” Reflecting the sexist black power discourse of his day, he declared as well that to “offset…cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood.”
Yet, King did insist that we are, fundamentally, spirit or love – “that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life,” the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” and which has been grasped by “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” belief systems. Thus, even as our lives are undeniably materially and politically shaped by structures that reinforce and perpetuate race, class, nation, and other political/social identities and divisions – necessitating, as King made clear throughout his life, that we organize to dismantle the structural inequalities that these produce and the violence they enact – we are not bound by them. In fact, not only can we move “beyond” them; we must do so, King suggested, for it is our failure to recognize that we are “interrelated,” i.e., connected in spirit and in love (or, as King put it, that we are all “sons of God”), that has set us on a path to “co-annihilation.”
We are still on that path, as our open-ended “war on terror,” our race-to-the-bottom neoliberal economic policies, and the nihilism of our refusal to address climate change all make abundantly clear. In this context, King’s message of love is surely a radical one, a message that asks us to reconstruct completely our society – beginning with ourselves. And it is the King who spoke of love and nonviolence as the path to peaceful coexistence – that radical, unwashed King, whom we must “reclaim” so that we might think more deeply and critically about what is required of us, what kind of revolution of values we must undergo or redefinition of self we must undertake, in order to make a more just and peaceful world. But that reclamation project ultimately requires us to take a hard look at our politics of identity and ask whether or not they are placing us firmly on the wrong side of history.
[i] Peniel E. Joseph, “MLK’s Radicalism Speaks to Contemporary Protests.” http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2015/04/on_the_anniversary_of_mlk_s_assassination_remember_his_militant_stands_against.html.
[ii] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” http://everythingishistory.com/337/beyond-vietnam-the-speech-that-killed-dr-martin-luther-king-jr/
[iii] Aidan Brown O’Shea, “Worshiping to Control: The Public Memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Political Right” (2011). Dickson College Honors Theses. Paper 114, p. 21.
[iv] Peter Dreier, “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/martin-luther-king-was-a-_1_b_6498740.html.
[v] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” op. cit
[vi] Ed Ciaccio, “‘A Radical Revolution of Values’: Dr. King’s Most Important Speech.” http://www.opednews.com/articles/-A-Radical-Revolution-of-V-by-ED-CIACCIO-090115-872.html
[vii] Emmanuel Konde, “King’s Transition from the Struggle for Black Political Rights to Economic Rights for All to Death by Hatred, 1955-1968.” http://ramscholar.openrepository.com/ramscholar/bitstream/10675.1/312069/1/Martin%20Luther%20King%20-%20Transition%20from%20Political%20to%20Economic%20Struggle%20to%20Death%20by%20Hatred%20(2013).pdf
[viii] O’Shea, op. cit
[ix] Ciaccio, op. cit
[x] “Beyond Vietnam: The Speech That Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” op. cit
[xi] Marcie Bianco, “Reclaim MLK wants to remind the world of Martin Luther King’s real legacy.” http://mic.com/articles/108710/reclaim-mlk-wants-to-remind-the-world-of-martin-luther-king-s-real-legacy.
[xii] Konde, op. cit.
[xiii] Camille A. Nelson, “The Radical King: Perspectives of One Born in the Shadow of a King,” 32 N.Y.U. Rev. L & Soc. Change 485, p. 503.
[xiv] Cornel West, “The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies,” in The Radical King” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited and introduced by Dr. Cornel West. (Beacon Press, 2015), intro. See also Douglas Sturm, “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Democratic Socialist.” Journal of Religious Ethics V. 18, No. 2 (Fall, 1990), pp. 79-105.
[xv] John M. Murphy and James Jasinski, “Time, Space, and Generic Reconstruction: Martin Luther King’s ‘A Time to Break Silence’ as Radical Jeremiad,” Public Address and Moral Judgment: Critical Studies in Ethical Tensions, ed. Trevor Parry Giles (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009), pp. 97-125.
[xvi] Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, “The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV.” http://fair.org/media-beat-column/the-martin-luther-king-you-dont-see-on-tv/.
[xvii] George N. Dionisopoulos, Victoria J. Gallagher, Steven R. Goldzwig and David Zarefsky, “Martin Luther King: The American Dream and Vietnam: A Collision of Rhetorical Trajectories.” Western Journal of Communication, 56 (Spring 1992), 91-107.
[xviii] Eric Mann, Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/19/martin-luther-king-and-the-black-revolutionary-tradition/
[xix] Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1986, p. 33.
[xx] King, “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” in Washington, op. cit., p. 57.
[xxi] Geoff Gilbert, “MLK’S radical vision got distorted: Here’s his real legacy on militarism & inequaility.” http://www.salon.com/2015/01/19/mlks_radical_vision_got_distorted_heres_his_real_legacy_on_militarism_inequality/
[xxii] King, “Conversation with Martin Luther King,” in Washington, op. cit., pp. 674-5.
[xxiii] King, “Showdown for Nonviolence,” in Washington, op. cit., p. 64.
[xxiv] Matt Wilstein, “Glen Beck Wants to Be the MLK of Opposing Marriage Equality.” http://www.mediaite.com/online/glenn-beck-wants-to-be-the-mlk-of-opposing-marriage-equality/.
[xxv] Chris Lebron, “Time for a New Black Radicalism.” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/time-for-a-new-black-radicalism/?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=Moth-Visible&module=inside-nyt-region®ion=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region&_r=0