Monday, January 15, 2007

At the Riverside with King

Today after you've heard the "I Have a Dream" speech for the n-teenth time, not that it isn't worth hearing again, you might spend a little time with Dr. King's 1967 sermon at the Riverside Church (full text and audio), in which he dared to say,

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in [a] revolution of values. 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 Taylor Branch reports in At Canaan's Edge, the final volume of his magisterial trilogy on King's life, while the Riverside congregation "embraced King's message as though relieved to hear biting reflection sustained with nuance so devoid of malice," rewarding him with two standing ovations, public reception of the speech ran from mixed to hostile. His longtime adviser Stanley Levison

considered the speech itself an obstacle to public understanding. "I do not think it was a good expression of you," he bluntly advised, "but apparently you think it was." With his trademark directness, Levison called it unwise to focus on Vietnamese peasants rather than average American voters. "The speech was not so balanced," he told King. It was too "advanced" to rally his constituency, and covered so many angles that reporters sidestepped his message by caricature and label. "What on earth can Dr. King be talking about?" wrote a Washington columnist on April 5, wondering how any civil rights leader could overlook the benefits of integrated combat. "If there hadn't been a war, it would have served the Negro cause well to start one."

It simply seemed a betrayal for King to shift from civil rights to the war. From Branch again,

While neither [the Washington Post or The New York Times] engaged the substance of his Riverside argument, both archly told him to leave Vietnam alone for his own sake. "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence," declared the Post. "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." Editors at the Times pronounced race relations difficult enough without his "wasteful and self-defeating" diversions into foreign affairs. In "Dr. King's Error," they summarized the Riverside speech as "a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate," and predicted that his initiative "could very well be disastrous for both causes."

Upon which King "broke down more than once into tears."

nc emancipation
Emancipated slaves, New Bern, N.C., 1863, accompanied by Union troops

No comments: