Fifty years ago today (April 4) something miraculous happened in the United States. In the midst of the Cold War, in which the U.S. branded many of its critics communist traitors, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out about the Vietnam War. That illegitimate war was supposed to be about freeing Vietnamese people from a growing communist menace. But history tells us that it was an act of American imperialism and the sabotage of democracy in Vietnam. 

King’s speech, called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” took place at New York City’s historic Riverside Church. It was King’s first antiwar oratory. In our “intersectional” world, it seems strange, but at the time King critics, including some Blacks, demanded to know why a Civil Rights leader was commenting on Vietnam. King knew that the war and the Civil Rights Movement were part of a common struggle against imperialism, colonization and capitalism. One year later, to the day of “Beyond Vietnam,” King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 

To learn more about this vital speech, we talked to Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a visiting scholar at the Martin Luther King Papers at Stanford University and a key figure in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Here’s what he shared, edited for clarity and heavily condensed for length. 

What is the significance of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech for people working for racial equality today?

I would want to re-pose the question because in the speech King is less interested in achieving equality within a morally bankrupt system. At the moment that he graces stage at The Riverside Church, he has returned to his radical self. …Here King delivers a damnable [interpretation] of the nation’s soul which “had become possessed by the giant triples of evil: materialism, militarism and racism.” Here we see that the real King was committed to a democratic socialist vision that grew from his Black church roots. 

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968—exactly one year after this speech. Can you talk more about “The Real King” whose ideas were so dangerous that he was murdered for them? Most commercial commemorations of King present him as a dreamer rather than a revolutionary. 

Specifically, there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to Whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism and Black prophetic Christianity. This King is not part of our popular imagination. We must keep track of attempts to reduce him to what Cornel West calls “The Santa Clausfication of King.” 

How does “Beyond Vietnam” resonate with you personally, as an activist, minister and scholar?  

In the speech King said, “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 for our limited vision, but we must speak.” He gave this speech in the midst of death threats, repudiation from Southern Christian Leadership Council’s board, and merciless attacks in the mainstream and African-American media. A major task of King’s public speech was to rebel against the monopoly on religious discourse shaped by conservative religious individuals and institutions. This resonates deeply with me. “How do we remain faithfully even when are not successful,” is a critical question for me.  

Some have described the King who made the “Beyond Vietnam” speech with phrases like “growing cynicism.” What do you think about this characterization?  

I believe King had lost faith in the American Dream but not the capacity of everyday people to speak their special truth to power. The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, organized by King and other Civil Rights leaders, was the mobilization of everyday people with that intended effect. In a 1966 planning meeting, King recognized that the Poor People’s Campaign was a more radical critique of capitalism and that it reaffirmed his commitment to democratic socialist eschatology. He told his staff, “We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. …You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying that profit must be taken out of the slums. … Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying something is wrong [with capitalism.] There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

What is useful about “Beyond Vietnam” today? How do we use it to understand this political moment?

I think that we have a lot of work to do to fully understand King’s legacy in this new moment. More often than not, the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King are held up as the counterweight to the Black Livers Matter movement (BLM). What is never told in the romantic and popular story of Dr. King is his limited popularity that he endured in the later part of his public life. 

According to a 1961 Gallup poll, a whopping 61 percent said they disapproved “of what the ‘Freedom Riders’ were doing.” That same poll illustrated that the majority of Americans felt that the lunch counter sit-ins and ‘other demonstrations’ would hurt Black folks’ chances of being integrated in the South. Fifty seven percent of Americans believed that King and young activists were damaging their cause. A lowly 12 percent “mostly agreed” with King. Our contemporary version of King is strikingly different.  In a 1999 paper, Gallup determined that Martin Luther King was second only to Mother Theresa as the most admired person in the 20th Century.  With a national monument to boot, King is surely an icon today. But the public response to the work of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement is very similar to that of Black Lives Matter.  

How so?

In a September 2015 survey about their attitudes toward Black Lives Matter, PBS News Hour and Maris asked respondents if they “mostly agreed with,” “mostly disagreed with” or had “no opinion either way” about the movement. Only 34 percent of adults chose “mostly agree.” Less than a third believed BLM was focused on “real issues of racial discrimination,” while 55 percent said the movement distracted from those issues. 

In another poll conducted by NBC News and Wall Street Journal in September 2015, only 32 percent of Americans had “mostly positive” views of BLM and 29 percent had mostly negative views of it. Basically, the U.S. public is responding to Black Lives Matter in the same way that it did to the Civil Rights Movement. So BLM does not share in King’s current popularity. The irony is latent and manifest. 

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is a visiting scholar at the Martin Luther King Papers at Stanford University and a blues artist.  His debut solo album “In Times Like These” will come out on May 5 and pre-sale starts April 7.