Each time I hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I am swept away by the prophetic imagery, the powerful oratory, the breadth of vision and transforming majesty of its message. “The Dream” will forever have its deserved place in history as it continues to inspire people the world over.
But today I am not thinking of 1963. Instead, my mind flips forward to April 4, 1967 and the Martin Luther King who delivered another speech – “Beyond Vietnam” – in the Riverside Church in New York City. It was this King who was assassinated exactly one year later to the day, a fact that I have always felt was not coincidental. For in “Beyond Vietnam” King engaged in the battle for the very soul of America. And he did so at his peril.
Why is it that so few Americans remember this speech, let alone honor it? It is not just that the speech is “dated” now that the Vietnam War is history; it is because the King of 1967 was not the King of 1963. He had moved beyond The Dream. By 1967 King had begun to make disturbing connections between the plight of garbage collectors in Memphis and the military budget in Washington, between the lack of jobs in the inner cities and the fact that people of color were dying in Southeast Asia.
Dr. King dared to tell the nation that only a “radical revolution of values” would save it from imminent ruin. His diagnosis was unequivocal. “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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” King's prognosis: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Today we are in the very throes of this death struggle, surrounded on all sides by mortal disease. We did not listen to the doctor. As a culture, we are more thing-centered than ever, there is war without end, a record-setting deficit, and a new militaristic adventurism that has placed American troops around the globe. Where today are those who, like King, can no longer remain silent? To quote again from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech:
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 who will lead us on the paths of life?
Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
No, this speech was not just about Vietnam, and if we are not willing to embrace the message and be changed by it, we have not grasped the essential Martin Luther King. And one day we will find that we have run out of time. Whether in the chaotic cities of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, or within the crumbling walls of public education in our own cities, the results of our bad choices stare us squarely in the face:
Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on...” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
Those who would smell the fragrance of the rose must also be ready for the pain of the thorn. Even as we honor the King of 1963, we should embrace the King of 1967. Only through the gut-wrenching realization that we have set the wrong course these forty-seven years will we find the strength to turn around and strike out for the opposite shore. Ever the man to give hope, King's message is clear:
There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
Fortunately, there is time to change. We still have today.
We must move past indecision to action...If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As we remember his Dream, let's not fail the man or his message. Only by realizing the gravity of our position and making those hard, but liberating, choices can we truly honor The Dream and march beyond it as Martin Luther King did.
For more about Martin Luther King's relevance for today, read Johann Christoph Arnold's piece "Martin, We Need You Now".