Thirty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech that changed my life. I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1967, during the peak of the Vietnam War. Almost by accident, a friend invited me across the street to hear Dr. King deliver an antiwar address at Riverside Church.
It's not the drama of the occasion, nor the recollection of King's mellifluous voice passing over the hushed sanctuary, that still strikes me. It is not even the way history later vindicated King's teachings on war - everything he predicted came to pass - that makes his 1967 address so memorable. It is the vitality of his teachings for our own lives today, especially the immediate relevance to bloated military budgets, that compels me to recall and reread that peacemaker's masterpiece once again.
The economic and moral crises we face today - the rise of violent crime, spread of drugs, the growing poverty of the working poor, the suffocation of millions of decent lives in the ghettos of our cities - all date back to that fateful turn when American leaders chose war over peace, empire over civil rights and social progress.
King saw our crisis coming. "A few years ago," he began from his well-lit pulpit, speaking in reference to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the new antipoverty programs, "there was a shining moment in our struggle. 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 the programs broken. I was compelled to see the war as the enemy of the poor."
As King analyzed the hope-wrecking nature of war, I put down my pen and stopped taking notes. I listened with my heart as he described not only the devastation abroad, and the injuries and scarred lives of working-class youth returning home, but the spiritual costs of imperialism - the mendacity of our leaders, the disillusionment of youth. "A nation," he said, "that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King reminded his listeners that US lawlessness abroad breeds violence within the United States as well. "As I have walked among the desperate, rejected angry men, I have told them that the Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.... But they ask - and rightly so - what about Vietnam? Wasn't our nation using massive doses of violence to solve its problems?"
King's speech included severe criticisms of the draft and the imbalance in military recruitment. Primarily white, middle-class college students got a preferential program - "college deferment." Speaking of people of color, King said "the war was sending their sons and their brothers and husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population." Contrary to claims by University of California regent Ward Connerly and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, King supported affirmative action. In the face of gross inequities, King was color-caring, not "color blind."
The war is passed, the cold war is over. But King's teachings about the moral and social costs of militarism are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. After all, there is still no Marshall Plan for our cities, no jobs program for our youth yearning for hope and direction. American leaders still refuse to turn swords into plowshares.
The current $245 billion defense appropriation is a mockery of economic justice. American cities are in decay, but Americans are paying more for defense than all potential adversaries and neutral parties combined. Worldwatch Institute notes, year after year, that the US is the world's largest arms producer. Subsidized by American taxpayers, American corporations - General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, General Electric, Lockheed, Hughes Aircraft to name a few - sell weapons of mass destruction to more than 40 countries. King once described the sale of weaponry on a world scale as one of the great social crimes of the modern age.
I left Riverside Church inspired by the intensity of the event. The following day, King's address caused an outcry in the media. Life magazine called it "demagogic slander, a script for Radio Hanoi." The Riverside address was recorded and filmed for posterity, but it is rarely quoted or mentioned today.
Nevertheless, I can still hear King reciting the words of poet James Russell Lowell: "Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet 'tis truth alone is strong."
* Paul Rockwell is a writer in Oakland., Calif.