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Silence is Not an Option: Rev. Barber on Dr. King’s Historic “Beyond Vietnam” Speech 50 Years Later

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Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s groundbreaking speech against the Vietnam War at New York City’s Riverside Church. He delivered the speech on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered. For more about Martin Luther King’s speech and its legacy, we speak with Rev. Dr. William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and president of the NAACP in North Carolina.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Reverend Barber, I want to turn now to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of King’s groundbreaking speech against the Vietnam War in New York City’s Riverside Church. He delivered the speech on April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered. This is part of what he said.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Martin Luther King went on to call the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home. And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking at Riverside Church April 4th, 1967.

To talk more about the speech, we’re still joined by the Reverend Dr. William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. He delivered a sermon at New York’s Riverside Church on Sunday commemorating this 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The sermon Reverend Barber delivered was titled “When Silence is Not an Option.”

Can you talk about the significance of what Dr. King said and when he said it, even his inner circle, Reverend Barber, telling him, “Don’t speak against the war in Vietnam. You have the most powerful person on Earth, the president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, wrapped around your finger. You’ve got the Civil Rights Act passed, the Voting Rights Act. This is not your war.” But King said no, and he gave this speech. Dr. Barber?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Yeah, he gave this, the speech—I would say a prophetic sermon—at Riverside and was killed exactly one year later. But Dr. King was very clear that you can never separate isms, the triune isms of racism, materialism, or classism, and militarism. And he was very clear about that. He knew that the prophetic role of the preacher or religious leader or moral leader is to challenge, if you will, the soul and the heart of the nation. If you listen to his voice and his words, he was very clear. Vincent Harding, who helped him draft that particular speech—and some say that something like 150 newspapers wrote articles against him the next week. Even civil rights organizations passed resolutions against him. Unions did the same thing—not all, but some. I know that there was one place, The Nation magazine, stuck with him, but many pulled away—his own staff. But he understood, as a moral leader, that we had to challenge.

Now, the question is—and the reason we’re at the Press Club today is because Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center from Union, we are convening and launching “The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Materialism, Poverty and Our National Morality,” because, you know, after that speech, he went into the Poor People’s Campaign. And the question, Amy and Juan, for the country today is: Where are we on these same issues? Where are we, really, on racism, when we see 22 states in this country passing systemic race-based voter suppression laws and we have less voting rights protection today than we had in 1965 with the gutting of the Civil Rights—of the Voting Rights Act? Where are we, when we have the second-highest level of child poverty, when we have exorbitant and extreme inequalities when it comes to wages? Where are we, when we don’t even hardly use the word “poor” in our public and political conversation? Where are we, when we just a few weeks ago saw an out-of-control military strike kill 200 innocent citizens, and some 400,000 citizens were killed during the Iraq War, that we should have never gone into? Where are we, when we’re talking about expanding an already bloated military budget and spending money, some $54 billion, that if we use that same money in a modern-day war against poverty and a modern call for healthcare and education, we could do so much more? Where are we, when we just saw our Congress debate on a fundamental human rights issue, healthcare, and argue that it was wrong to provide people healthcare, and wanting to engage in the worst attacks on the poor that we’ve seen since the war on poverty?

So, we need a very serious audit, but also we need an action. And many of us are saying we can’t just remember Dr. King’s speech or his actions. So, together, we’ve also called for the national Moral Revival Poor People/Poor Children Campaign to start in 2018, beginning with this audit, but the audit then leading to action. And the audit is going to be chaired by Reverend Dr. Forbes, the former pastor emeritus of Riverside, and Shailly Gupta Barnes, who’s a lawyer and economist, and Dr. Tim Tyson, who’s a renowned historian. And we’re bringing economists and theologians and political scientists and poor people around the table to say not just how we remember, but how do we re-engage and reinstitute the Poor People’s Campaign with all of its trimmings, including civil disobedience, from the state up and even in the capital of this country, Washington, D.C.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Reverend, I wanted to ask you. You’re going to be moving on from where you are in D.C. now, later in the week going to Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated a year after that speech in Riverside Church. He had gone there to support the sanitation workers, who were on strike in Memphis. And you’re going to be going there to deal with the issue of $15 an hour. Could you talk about that, as well?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Right. Well, as a powerful coming together, you know, Dr. King saw—that’s one of the reasons that people feared him, because he was bringing together the antiwar movement, the concerns about poverty and the civil rights movement. And on tomorrow, we will be there, first at the museum to train clergy and others in this modern-day need for a Poor People’s Campaign and a Moral Revival, but then, later, we will join with the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, Repairers, Moral Revival, coming together because even in Memphis today, even in the South today, you know, the poorest states are still in the South, 10 of 12 poorest states. The same states that passed voter suppression laws also have—do not have living wages, have—many of them have denied Medicaid expansion and have the highest rates of poverty. And we’re going to fight for 15 in that city, as those workers are demanding $15 an hour in that city and are challenging the structures there legally and otherwise.

So, yes, he fought in yesteryear, but we must not merely remember yesteryear. We must bring it alive today. And remember, 50 years later, we still do not have a living wage. And one of the things Dr. King wanted, he said you can give people housing, and you can do different things, but he called that “piecemeal” in his book, Where Do We Go from Here? He wanted the government to provide a living wage—a living wage—because he understood it was government policy that created slavery, that created income disparity, and he knew that people needed a living wage and that wars and racism were hindering us from doing the right thing economically. So that’s why we’re going to lead a march on tomorrow in Memphis around some of these same issues, that we have to decide we’re not going to merely glorify and glamorize the past and say what Dr. King did then. His speech at Riverside raises: What are we going to do with what he said today? That’s the question that we must deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, thanks so much for being with us, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and president of the North Carolina NAACP. He’s speaking to us from the National Press Club in Washington, before he goes to Memphis, where he and others will be holding a news conference today at 9:00 a.m.

This is Democracy Now! Tomorrow, Noam Chomsky will be our guest for the hour. We’ll also talk to him about Dr. King’s historic speech. But when we come back, we go to Cairo, Egypt, to speak with Sharif Abdel Kouddous. The Egyptian president, Sisi, is in Washington to meet with President Trump today. Stay with us.

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