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A Time to Break the Silence

I just finished reading Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break the Silence,” a speech he gave at a meeting at Riverside Church in NYC on April 4, 1967 exactly one year before his assassination.

Usually on MLK Day you hear about the “I Have a Dream” speech or “The Mountain Top” speech or even “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  These are all wonderful words from King, however, I wanted to read something new and challenging. If you choose to indulge, I hope it challenges you.

Several things I noticed from this speech.

1.  When you read “A Time to Break the Silence,” you’ll notice a difference in the language — it sounds different.   MLK is still the prophet and poet, but now in 1967  his tone is more urgent and ominous, which shows in his phrasing:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.  Procrastination is still the thief of time.  Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”

No longer is freedom ringing from every village and hamlet.  You no longer get black children and white children holding hands, but King is talking about the revolution of values needed for America to be on the right side of history and change.  The booming voice that cries out with a vision of hope for a renewed America is now forewarning America about the dangers of war in Vietnam.  If you read “I See The Promised Land,”  also called “The Mountain Top” speech, you’ll pick up some of the same weariness and sullenness in the words.  It’s almost as if King knows he won’t live to see the changes he’s struggled for, if change will come at all.  He is the prophet who longs for a better society but comes to the realization that he will not get there.  He is Moses encroaching upon the Promised Land.   If “I Have a Dream” moves you, this one should disturb you.

2.  This MLK is more dangerous and socially unacceptable.  Even though protesting the war fit within MLK’s ideology, it was this speech and others in the final years of his life that alienated King from even those in his own community.  President Johnson was enfuriated with King after he came out against the war, and saw it as an insult after Johnson himself had worked with African-American leaders and Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  It was one thing to push for civil rights, quite another to protest the war.  He even went so far as to encourage people to become conscientious objectors to the war.  And this MLK speaks of revolution, about breaking the “thing-oriented” system of society, where nations “maintain social stability for our investment accounts.”

“These are revolutionary times.  All over the globe men 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 shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before.  The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.  We in the West must support these revolutions.  It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.”

Harsh words.  Anti-patriotic some would say.   Nevertheless, he foresaw America as a Status-Quo keeper and not a Peacekeeper, that is, America as keeping the systems that benefit us economically and ideologically.  If we have to go to war with a country to show that we can defeat Communism, even if it destroys the nation we are trying to liberate, so be it.  MLK warned America of troubles in South America, Africa, and Asia if we didn’t re-think our values systems.  And he was right.  Now we are facing those same problems in the Middle East.    If someone were to give this speech today, he or she would be liberal, anti-patriotic, unsupportive of the troops, and un-American.  I give you Martin Luther King.

3.  My grandfather was a helicopter pilot during Vietnam, and he tells almost verbatim the political history of Vietnam that King gives in this speech, and my grandfather and MLK are worlds apart.  In other words, no matter what your political ideology, King had it right.  King saw the deadly game that America was playing by refusing to recognize Vietnamese independence and supporting French colonization, backing an authoritarian government under Ngo Dinh Diem, and ultimately leading Vietnam down the path of war.  He also saw this as a never-ending cycle unless America re-thought its values system.

“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced 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.”

And he was right.  Look at where we are today.  I’m not implying that Iraq or Afghanistan equals Vietnam, but there are correlations.  We support one leader in the fight against one country, only to be burned later.  Then we rush in for regime change not thinking about the consequences, and we start the game all over again.  Our self interests preclude us from finding creative ways to foster peace and stability in regions throughout the world without coercion and force.

4.  King’s “Dream” is still in progress.  Almost 42 years ago King was assassinated.  Only 6 years before that the Civil Rights Act passed.  That means my parents were born into an era still marred with segregation.  It’s hard to imagine that.  Before that my grandparents were going through the depression and WWII.  And just beyond that generation lies the aftermath of the Civil War.  For some people, we’re only talking 4-5 generations removed from the Civil War.  We’re only 46 years  removed from the Civil Rights Act and only 147 years from the Emancipation Proclamation.  A century and a half seems a long time ago, but many of you have great grandfathers/mothers or great great grandfathers/mothers who lived when slavery was still legal.  And considering our country declared independence only 234 years ago and ratified its constitution 220 years ago, African-American’s have been long-suffering in their pursuit of happiness.  It was only 2 years ago in 2008, when the United States nominated and elected its first African-American President (our 44th President).  We’ve only had these 46 years, less than half a century, where African American’s have not had the yoke of slavery and segregation, and even then they’ve had to fight the status quo and systematic racism that exists even today.   And even after all that, King’s dream was about more than racial equality.  It became a dream where a revolution of values would declare “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”  King’s dream is still a work in progress. We are the Joshua generation to King’s dream.

I have officially broken my silence.
And now its time to break yours.  Leave your thoughts and criticisms.


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