Did This 1967 Speech Make Dr. King a Target?

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Exactly one year before his assassination, on April 4, 1967, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech that may have helped put a target on his back. That speech, entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break The Silence, was an unequivocal denunciation of America’s involvement in that Southeast Asian conflict.

The speech began conventionally. King thanked his hosts, the antiwar group Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. But he left little doubt about his position when he quoted from the organization’s statement.

“…I found myself in full accord when I read (the statement’s) opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal,’ “ King told the crowd gathered at Riverside Baptist Church in New York.

He indicated that his commitment to non-violence left him little choice. “…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: my own government.”

King had given an antiwar speech in February 1967. But that sentiment was often described as pro-Communist in an America that was in the midst of the Cold War. So King spoke again two months later, to ensure his position was clear.

In the April speech, King carefully laid out the history of the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. He started at 1945, when Vietnam’s prime minister Ho Chi Minh overthrew the French and Japanese. He carried his audience through American support for France’s effort to regain its former colony, and for Vietnam’s dictatorial first president Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, assassinated in 1963. Through it all, King noted, America sent more and more soldiers to Vietnam.

“The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. … Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy, ” he said.

King also accused increasing military costs of taking money from domestic programs meant to fight poverty and racism. Instead, he said, young black men “crippled by our society” were being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

In the decades since his assassination, the speech has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. His career is almost solely represented by the the last half of the 1963 I Have A Dream speech, delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which King anticipated a world where content of character matter more than skin color.

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Source: USA Today | Afi-Odelia Scruggs