What Progressives Can Learn From Martin Luther King’s Vietnam Speech

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about morality and strategy in US foreign policy. After reading Ben Rhodes’ book The World As It Is, I decided to read some of the most significant foreign policy speeches of the last century, ranging from Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of 1918 to Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning,” which he delivered in Cairo in 2009.

One of my favorite speeches that I read was Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam,” which he gave at Riverside Church in 1967. I was struck by the way in which King connected the Civil Rights Movement to the nascent movement to end the Vietnam War, placing them into a common struggle for justice. Inspired by the speech, I wrote a short online article for the Sigma Iota Rho Journal of International Relations. Here’s a quick quote from the piece:

Martin Luther King offers progressives a cogent, authoritative critique of how the US government treats the disempowered, both at home and abroad. As progressives find their voice on foreign policy, King’s global moral vision offers a starting point.


You can read the full piece on the journal’s website.

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Speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford

During the service.

It was an honor to speak about defending Mississippi’s democracy at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford at their January 20 service, just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I had never attended a UU service before, but I received a warm welcome from a vibrant community of Oxonians who, instead of following a single creed, share a commitment to universal values like human dignity, equity, justice, and peace.

During the UU Congregation’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day service, we focused on one of the core Unitarian Universalist principles: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

When the UU Congregation asked me to speak about Mississippi Votes, I knew that I wanted to contextualize the organization’s work. Mississippi Votes can only empower communities today because of the tireless efforts of generations of activists who fought to expand Mississippi’s democracy. It’s important to recognize that their victories were hard-won, and that progress requires hard work at critical times– it isn’t inevitable.

I’ve included some excerpts from my speech below:

“In 1853, Theodore Parker said “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.” Parker a few years later, would fund the efforts of a revolutionary anti-racist named John Brown, who raided a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry to spark a slave rebellion. Parker died in Italy in 1860. He wouldn’t live to see emancipation. 

Over a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. said “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King was murdered in 1968, just a few years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Half a century after King’s speech, the American people elected President Barack Obama. In his first year in office, Obama said “While you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it “bends toward justice.’ So I hope that you will stand up and do what you can to serve your community, shape our history and enrich both your own life and the lives of others across this country.’ “

I’m going to talk about democracy in Mississippi and in the United States as a whole. The story that I learned in elementary school goes something like this: Some very smart white men founded the greatest country on earth, the world’s first democracy, and called it the United States of America. They didn’t like slavery but they couldn’t stop it. A lot of people died in the Civil War and then Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. A hundred years later, Martin Luther King made sure they could vote. Fifty years after that, Barack Obama became president of the United States and racism was over.

The truth, as always, is more complicated. The history of American democracy has been a history of expansions and contractions. For a slave in 1850, it didn’t look like the arc of history bent towards justice. For a sharecropper in 1920, it didn’t look like the arc of history bent towards justice.”

Next, I talked about the history of Mississippi’s democracy through the eyes of the Washington family, who were slaves and then sharecroppers in southwest Mississippi. It’s important to remember that, although emancipation brought nominal freedom for slaves in Mississippi, they saw their rights eroded by white supremacist politicians after the 1870s.

“In 1890, white redeemer politicians gathered to draft Mississippi’s new constitution. One of the drafters named SS Calhoon said “We came here to exclude the negro. Nothing short of this will answer.’ And so convention delegates implemented a web of poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests to block black voters from the ballot box.”

I wanted to lay out that history because we have to be sure that we don’t take our democratic institutions for granted. In the past years, voting rights have come under threat again. Between voter ID laws, purges of voter rolls, the nullification of the Voting Rights Act, the continuation of gerrymandering, and increasingly restrictive electoral regulations, it is becoming more and more difficult to vote. The burden falls especially hard on historically disenfranchised people, including communities of color and low-income populations.

“Today we are living at a critical juncture in American history — one of those times when the forces of injustice are winning, when the structures that prop up the powerful are strengthening and the walls that divide the oppressed are growing higher. Around the country, the progress of the last five decades is being rolled back”

With that in mind, I reminded the congregation:

“The work of democracy is never done. Empowering the disempowered does not happen by accident. The arc of history does bend towards justice, but only when we push it to do so at critical times such as this.”

It was an honor to share the morning with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford to honor Dr. King’s legacy. I sincerely thank them for their hospitality and enthusiasm.

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