On the anniversary of both his 1967 Beyond Vietnam Speech and his 1968 assassination, we remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for “a revolution in American values” and freedom from the legacy of slavery.
Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, “as one who loves America.” He argued that our country would never be free “until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.” He explained that a “true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.”
Questioning the fairness and justice of our policies makes us stronger, Dr. King said, because it is an exercise of love. “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response,” he said. “This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.”
Tavis Smiley commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in a conversation with EJI Director Bryan Stevenson, who acknowledged that it grieved Dr. King to have to talk about his beloved country in a critical way, but that Dr. King nonetheless felt compelled to speak out because he wanted the best for this country, and wanted it to meet its ideals. “I identify with that moral force that compels you to keep pushing, even when it’s not convenient, even when it’s not comfortable.” Dr. King challenged the nation’s leaders to examine the failures of the Vietnam War, Mr. Stevenson said, because he had a vision of what a great nation we could be if we resisted the instinct for retribution and revenge, and resisted hopelessness. “I don’t think we’re going to be free in this nation if we don’t examine our hearts.”
We are still burdened by our history of racial inequality. As Bryan Stevenson said, “We have work to do to free ourselves from the narrative of racial difference that still is in the atmosphere, that still haunts us.” We’re burdened by the legacy of slavery, because the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to legitimize slavery was not addressed by the 13th Amendment. As a result, “slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved.” Our country has not adequately confronted decades of terrorism and lynching. To become the great nation that Dr. King envisioned, Mr. Stevenson concluded, “We have to become vocal about that history. There’s a moral challenge right now for us to take a big step forward on truth about racial inequality.”