On Friday, April 4, the world remembers the 40th anniversary of the untimely and tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s legacy is large, and much of the progress we have made in race relations, although still inadequate, is due to his unwavering belief and commitment to justice, freedom, and equality for all.
Yet, while we look back on his life and work with great admiration, many people, and mostly young people, are unaware of his greatness as an orator. Dr. King was perhaps the greatest speech giver of the past century. The depth of his thought, the poetry of his words and phrases, and the cadence of his speech captivated and motivated audiences who listened to his powerful messages.
I have recently been re-reading through and listening to some of these speeches. Of course, we think primarily of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, where he laid out his dream for an equal America. But perhaps as powerful, but much shorter, was the last speech he gave the night before his death in Memphis. The emotion he must have felt as he talked about seeing the Promised Land of equality, even though he would not get there. More than a public speaker, Dr. King was a biblical prophet, whose prophetic voice and message exposed the oppression of governmental policies and practices that failed to secure equality and justice for all.
Yet, while the above mentioned speeches may be commonly known by many people, most would be surprised to know that one of his most memorable speeches was given at historic Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death. The speech was entitled, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”
I had read the text of this sermon many years ago, but I recently listened to a recording of Dr. King delivering this address. In that speech, Dr. King called for a break in the silence that loudly refused to challenge the American government’s policy in Vietnam through a voice of dissent. He also drew attention to the reality that the war had many more victims than the soldiers killed on both sides, as innocent citizens of Vietnam suffered because of American military strikes and innocent Americans suffered under the economic weight of waging a costly war. Moreover, he accused the U.S. government of maintaining an air of arrogance, believing that it had everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it.
As I listened to some of the poetic statements come from the mouth of this 20th century prophet, I could not help but hear him delivering this speech today, as if he were still alive. I was taken with how relevant this speech is to the current context of the War in Iraq, calling for an end to the silence, an end to American arrogance, and an end to the war.
But what is so prophetic about Dr. King’s speech about American arrogance and the war in Vietnam, is not only that it foreshadows America’s continued arrogance in how it still relates to the rest of the world, but that it echoes some of the same sentiments that Jesus spoke as he proclaimed a kingdom of alternative values in the face of Roman Imperial power and arrogance. As Jesus called for a reordering of values in his own context, so Dr. King called on America to embrace the values of peace, justice, and humility.
In that sermon at Riverside Church, Dr. King called for “A true revolution of values” that would “lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” He continued by proclaiming that, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” “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.”
As we remember this modern prophet of God, may we not only remember his legacy of speaking prophetically the biblical message against prejudice, injustice, and war, but may we also find our prophetic voices that echo his message from a sermon he delivered against the war on Feb. 25, 1967 that called America to execute “another kind of power”; “a moral power ¦ harnessed to the service of peace.”
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.