Today, amid all the millions of words that will be written commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated on this day fifty years ago, I want to talk about the lessons he taught us on questions of peace and war, and on the obligation we have to fight against poverty, discrimination and oppression not just at home, but wherever we see them in the world.
But as ever, when talking about Dr King’s legacy, the simplest thing is to urge people to read and listen to his own words, and – in respect of his lessons on foreign policy – I would urge you to read or listen to his speech at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York on April 4th, 1967, exactly one year before his death.
For me, amongst all the dozens of inspiring, immortal speeches made by Dr King, the Riverside Speech was the greatest, the most courageous and the most timeless, all belied by the remarkably contrite and humble way in which he introduces it.
It is a speech, he says, two years in the making, as he struggled “to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart” to condemn the American war in Vietnam.
He openly admits that his allies have counselled him against speaking out, and warned him of the damage it would do to the Civil Rights movement, most dangerously by putting him at odds with his allies in the Johnson administration.
And he attacks head-on the inevitable slur that, by speaking up against the war, he is speaking up for America’s opponents in Hanoi. A danger which any of us variously accused over the last fifteen years of being pro-Saddam, pro-Assad, or any other other ludicrous charge, well understand.
Having established those basics, Dr King then begins his detailed explanation as to why – from a moral and pragmatic standpoint – he has no option but to speak out against the Vietnam war.
He starts with the impact it is having on America’s poor, robbing funds that could be better spent on tackling their poverty, while also sending tens of thousands of young poor Americans to die:
“We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
And he ends with a forensic examination of Vietnam’s post-war history and America’s conduct in the conflict, and asks – in light of all that – how the Vietnamese people could possibly regard the United States as liberators.
But what makes the Riverside speech so extraordinary and timeless is what he does next. Because, as Dr King says himself – having made his case on Vietnam – the easy thing would be to stop there. But his principles will not let him.
As he did throughout his life, he feels obliged to challenge the underlying causes and wrong-headed thinking behind the problem at hand, and insists he must do so in respect of the war in Vietnam, because otherwise – he prophetically warns – we will be having similar wars for decades to come.
So he talks passionately about the need to move away from the primacy of profits to the primacy of people; to tackle the glaring gulf between the world’s rich and poor countries; to challenge the fundamental injustice of using war to settle the world’s differences; and to support the struggles of the “shirtless and barefoot” against their poverty and powerlessness.
Dr King describes it all as a ‘revolution of values’, the phrase I quoted in my Labour conference speech last September, which must declare “eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism” not just in America, but throughout the world.
And I can do no better than directly quote from the final call to action he gave at the Riverside Baptist Church:
“Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole, in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship – that lifts neighbourly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation – is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
Dr King never lived long enough to see that struggle through, but he set out the challenge so that we might take it up. And 50 years on from his passing, that is still the best way we can fulfil his legacy today.
May he not just rest in peace, but always continue to inspire us to fight for justice, freedom, understanding and love.