This week marks the 92nd anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and 53 years since his assassination. His radical vision is more relevant today than ever.
Nowhere was that vision more present than in his April 4, 1967 speech against the Vietnam War delivered at New York’s Riverside Church exactly one year before he was murdered at the young age of 39. No essay can do justice to the speech – it is necessary to read or listen to, in order to mine its rich vein of common sense, compassion, and incomparable insight into the human condition, which remains relevant today.
King’s message in his Riverside address was controversial at the time. Critics suggested that he should stay in his lane – civil rights – rather than linking the civil rights struggle to the movement against the war in Vietnam. King resolutely refused to do so, noting that those who wished him to refrain from criticizing the war “have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
The Riverside address, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: Silence Is Betrayal,” went well beyond an indictment of the war in Southeast Asia to a systemic analysis, noting that Vietnam was merely a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” that would spawn many more wars if it was not addressed at its root. In what may be the most widely quoted passage in the speech, Dr. King denounced “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” that are the driving force behind violence and deprivation at home and abroad.
One of King’s key points in the 1967 speech was that spending on the Vietnam War undercut the nascent efforts to deal with deep-seated poverty:
“A few years ago, there was a shining moment . . . It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
As the new Poor People’s Campaign has noted in its blueprint for the future of America, a budget is a moral document. King underscored this point when he said, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” As the Poor People’s Campaign’s analysis has shown, this inequity continues. Well over 50 cents on the dollar of our discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, more than we spend on education, infrastructure, job training, environmental protection, transportation, veteran’s benefits housing and community development combined. And as the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies has demonstrated, the “militarized budget” that includes items like federal prisons, the border patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and veteran’s affairs (a cost of current and past wars) accounts for an astonishing 64 cents of every dollar of discretionary spending.
At a time when the pandemic, climate change, inequality, and racial and economic injustice require investment and attention on an unprecedented scale, spending approximately three-quarters of a trillion dollars per year on the Pentagon is unjust and unsustainable. As the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force has indicated, the nation and the world could be safer while spending substantially less on the Pentagon – savings of at least $1.25 trillion over the next decade. Other analyses, such as those carried out by #PeopleOverPentagon and the National Priorities Project (in cooperation with the Poor People’s Campaign), make the case for cutting even further — $200 billion to $350 billion per year.
Reducing Pentagon spending to address other urgent needs is also on the agenda of the Movement for Black Lives. Among the movement’s policy demands is a call for a solution that does the following:
“Cuts the US military budget by 50%, which will lead to the closure of the over 800 U.S. military bases the U.S. around the world, the elimination of the sale of weaponry to violators of human rights, reduces the use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons and return all troops back from the current theatres of war.”
The emerging youth anti-militarism movement Dissenters has also taken up the call, stating its mission as a drive to “reclaim our resources from the war industry, reinvest in life-giving services, and repair collaborative relationships with the earth and people around the world.” And progressive veteran’s organizations like Common Defense have positions consistent with a reduction in Pentagon spending, including “building a national security and foreign policy infrastructure that is dedicated to ending wars and protecting human rights and liberties.”
All of this suggests that the traditional peace movement could become just one part of a multi-issue movement for ending wars, repairing the environment, and addressing racial and economic injustice, including stopping police violence and focusing on reversing the racial disparities in health care that have contributed to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit communities of color the hardest.
Near the end of his speech, Dr. King calls us to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” The task could not be more urgent.