Fifty years since “Beyond Vietnam”
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King addressed the nation from Riverside Church in New York City. With this speech, he broke his silence around what were long-held beliefs: the Vietnam War was immoral and unwarranted. Until that point he had remained mostly quiet about his opposition, because the administration of President Johnson had been instrumental in securing civil rights’ legislative victories and had launched the War on Poverty programs.
King’s decision was not an easy one. Pressure to remain silent came not only from the Johnson administration but also from established civil rights leaders and their allies. In unison they insisted that to take a stance on the war would be detrimental to the cause of civil rights.
King confidant Harry Belafonte recalled King’s distress when the New York Times and Washington Post swiftly denounced his Riverside speech. Both journals had been important partners in the battle for civil rights, but “so distorted was their critique of him, (King) felt that there was now serious doubt that the responsible platform that (King) thought would be available for open debate and objective examination was now seriously crippled.” Yet “the only rage he expressed was at his own naiveté in not clearly understanding that his adversaries would emerge from even the most respected of sources.”
For King it was not that he was willing to trade progress on civil rights for a moral stance on the war. It was that he believed racism, militarism and poverty were knotted together. To pretend that they could address one but not the other was a delusion, perhaps intentionally stoked to secure war support among those who stood to gain little from the war itself.
King called the war a “cruel manipulation of the poor,” and by poor he was thinking of those in the US and in Vietnam. There was a “cruel irony” in “watching Negro and white boys…in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village” when they would not be seated together in school or guaranteed the liberties they were purportedly exporting to Vietnam. The poor were disproportionately represented among the military. Their lives were risked “on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.” King later identified US actions in Vietnam as “war crimes.”
Not only were poor soldiers cruelly manipulated, but the poor at home too. As with the relationship between the war and the gains of civil rights, it was not simply that the war budget deprioritized and defunded Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, but the war itself was tied to economic exploitation.
War and economic exploitation shared an objectification of human beings and violation of human personhood. King connected that, “If you will treat human beings as a means to an end, you thingify those human beings. And if you will thingify persons, you will exploit them economically. And if you will exploit persons economically, you will abuse your military power to protect your economic investments and your economic exploitations.” The spoils of economic exploitation and war required each other to maintain themselves.
Eight months later, on December 4, 1967, King called for a Poor People’s Campaign as the first step in building a multiracial leadership for a human rights movement that would abolish racism, poverty and war. In the first public announcement, King pointed to the ability of the poor to recognize where their interests lay. “Poor people who are treated with derision and abuse by an economic system soon conclude with elementary logic that they have no rational interest in killing people 12,000 miles away in the name of defending that system.”
The Poor People’s Campaign was not a prioritizing of one evil over another but a strategy for attacking all three: “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others…The whole structure of American life must be changed.”
In Rev. Dr. King’s own understanding, the Poor People’s Campaign represented a shift in strategic focus from the civil rights movement to a human rights movement, directed at the triple evils of poverty, racism and war. Behind this shift was King’s deep religious commitment to the necessity and rightness of this complete transformation of American life.
As with the civil rights movement, King understood the task of this era not only socially, politically, and economically, but also theologically. He believed that, “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” This would be made possible by the “scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth” that were creating both a level of productivity that made poverty unnecessary and a global revolutionary leadership that could create more just structures to share the new abundance.
King tied together the triple evils in describing the breadth and depth of change necessary. By looking at their interrelatedness, we would see through new eyes that the existing system “cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” He identified the violence of war, the arrogance of American exceptionalism and the exploitation of neo-colonialism as related to the violence of capitalism the poor experienced domestically. And so by responding to the violence of poverty within the US, a movement would develop that could join the larger revolution against the global manifestations of the triple evils.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: ‘This is not just.’ It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’ It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’
This revolution of values is something very different from moral suasion and appeals to ethics. The movement for human rights would require grappling with evil structures and the redistribution of economic power. King knew that there could be no “tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice” The scale of change required meant that local solutions were insufficient and allowing organizing to be divided racially was insufficient. “We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power.”
This is why the Poor People’s Campaign was a national, multiracial campaign that drew together not individual poor people but existing religious and community leaders and the communities they were organizing, across lines of difference. And this is why he drew lessons from revolutionary processes across the globe, seeing that in these “revolutionary times,” the poor around the world “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.”
The fiftieth anniversary of Beyond Vietnam simultaneously marks the start of King’s last year before he was assassinated. Now one year from the fiftieth anniversary of his death, we find ourselves further away from the realization of our human rights and human dignity that he proclaimed was our destiny to claim. King has been commissioned in death by corporations, the government, charities and churches to be civil religion’s patron saint of community service, but he stated clearly and frequently during his life that our current forms of action to solve the urgent problems of society are insufficient. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
King saw with increasing clarity that when compared to the structural character of poverty, charity and reformist solutions to poverty and misery only exacerbate the problem, and his distinction between flinging a coin to a beggar and transforming society was a frequent, urgent refrain.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a critique of the idea that the solution to poverty is a few people amassing vast sums of money and donating some of it to programs that address the symptoms of poverty. It is a critique of the idea that the best we can do are service projects, supporting NGOs and voting for the expansion of services. So although it failed to achieve its purpose in 1968, the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign proposes that instead of the rich saving the poor, the poor are the saviors of the world, because we are capable of being organizing ourselves, across lines of division, as a “new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”