Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a momentous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in which he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War. An encounter with Thich Nhat Hanh had led to a transformational change with immense consequence. They first connected when Hanh wrote to King to ask for his assistance in the struggles of the Vietnamese people, and were were eventually able to meet, leading to King’s support for the cause of the Vietnamese people in ending the war. This stance was extremely criticized, as it pitted King against the U.S. government, especially President Johnson, whose support he sought for his civil rights work, and also put him in opposition to other leaders, blacks who wanted him to stick to their cause.
King admitted that fear, apathy, uncertainty inhibited him from following the demands of inner truth and opposing his government’s policy, especially in time of war.
“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
King spoke with humility and courage of how he was “moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.” Many persons questioned him about the wisdom of his path, dissenting his own government’s action, some claiming, "Peace and civil rights don't mix," others accusing him of “Hurting the cause of your people.” These responses saddened King because they meant that the inquirers did not really know him, his commitment or his calling, or the world in which they live.
Though King was clearly identified as the champion of a cause for a particular group of oppressed people, he spoke of how the Nobel Peace Price which he had received, was a commission to work harder than he had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This calling took him beyond national allegiances, race, creed to the vocation of brotherhood. He called this the privilege and burden of all who believe they are we are bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond one nation's self-defined goals and positions. King believed we are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls "enemy."
“No document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. . . I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.”
So King extended his compassion to Vietnam. He even extended it enemies, opponents. Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. From his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition. King tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," He was also deeply concerned about our own troops for how they were de-humanized by the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. King called for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation, an all-embracing, unconditional love for all mankind.
King showed how an understanding of historical connectedness can inform our activism and vice versa by destroying the delusion of isolated history that fragments us from ourselves and each other. When we look at how our people’s history does not exist in isolation, but instead arises in dynamic relationship to multiple peoples’ histories, then we may find a basis for a deep solidarity that sustains movement building. King embraced inclusivity and saw justice as shared humanity. He was a leader trying to travel a life path that would lead him to a destination where he could fully integrate compassion for others, and unity with men and women of all races and faiths.