Martin Luther King Jr.

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Why does King explain his reasons for opposing the Vietnam War at the beginning of his speech?

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On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before an assembled crowd in New York and gave a speech he titled “Beyond Vietnam.” King had been a leader of the civil rights movement since the early 1950s. He and other leaders of this movement would, over time, come to broaden their efforts beyond the plight of African Americans to include others who had suffered the same indignities of prejudice. For many of his years as an active leader of the civil rights movement, however, King tended to eschew comments on the growing American involvement in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam. Early in his speech, he acknowledged his failure to address the war more openly and forcefully:

I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam. . .

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don’t mix," they say. "Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

King had eschewed open involvement in the debate over Vietnam primarily because he did not want to detract from his principal goal, the attainment of equal rights for African Americans. The legacies of slavery and institutionalized segregation were still being felt. The struggle for civil rights was an ongoing effort, and it had only been within the previous decade that important advances in this area had been achieved. A second reason, however, might very well have been that public support for the war in Vietnam had not yet turned. While the anti-war (and, in some cases, pro-North Vietnam) constituencies were becoming larger and more vocal, the real turning point in public reaction to the war would only come nine months later with the Tet Offensive. Whether King had silently opposed the war from its inception is a question up for debate. He was only now, however, publicly expressing opposition to the war because the public, for the most part, was not ready for prominent leaders to come out against the war. Additionally, King could not afford to alienate President Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society program included major advances in civil rights. Whether President Johnson was already seriously considering his future decision of not to seek reelection is equally uncertain. Most histories suggest that decision would not come until the late summer or early fall of 1967. It is possible, however, that King had calculated that he could now afford to risk Johnson’s anger by announcing his opposition to a war that the incumbent president had overseen. In any case, King’s speech occurred during a period when the political ramifications of the American role in Vietnam were just beginning to be felt by elected officials and political and civil rights activists alike.

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In his speech "Beyond Vietnam," King explains his motivations for speaking out. Some of his own—and President Johnson's—followers had urged him to keep quiet about the war (despite his (King's) distress over it) and stick narrowly to speaking only about the Civil Rights movement. Because he was taking a position some saw as radical and out of line, King felt the need to justify his speaking. 

An article in the New York Times offers interesting background on the speech, noting that King was so moved when he saw photos of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack that he no longer could keep silent.

In his speech, he explains that "my conscience leaves me no other choice" and notes that silence can become a form of "betrayal." He says this to show that he is not speaking in a facile political way, but out of his deepest religious convictions. He no longer believes he can do anything else. He notes too that the calling to speak can be "a vocation of agony," but nonetheless necessary. He understands the war as a symptom of a "deeper malady" within the American spirit that has to be addressed by a "revolution of values" that condemns war as wrong.

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The question does not say which of Martin Luther King's speeches you are referring to. However, by far his most famous speech about Vietnam was his first, given on April 4, 1967 (one year before his assassination). In this speech, given in New York City, he broke what he called "the betrayal of [his] own silences" over the war, and he begins the speech by listing the reasons he is opposed to the conflict. These include his conviction that the war diverted resources from the Great Society, the fact that a disproportionate number of black and poor Americans fought in the war, and simply that the war was inconsistent with his Christian pacifism. He is compelled, perhaps, to give the reasons for the positions he has taken because he does not wish to have his message misconstrued as radicalism. He is careful to make connections between his Christian faith, his struggle for racial equality, and his opposition to the war. He explains himself in the hopes that his message for peace in Vietnam will not weaken his message for racial justice in America. He outlines the concerns of his critics in one revealing passage:

At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask.

As mentioned above, King outlines the reasons (he lists seven) for his position in an attempt to make the connection he perceives between civil rights and Vietnam. 

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