In the first two years after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize  in 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maintained a skeptical but moderate and relatively quiet position on the war in Vietnam. He spoke out forcefully and at length against the war on April 4, 1967, in an address at Manhattan’s Riverside Church to an audience of some three thousand. His “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam ” was cheered by many in the antiwar movement, though his stand was denounced by the New York Times and by many leaders in the black establishment, among others. The excerpts below are taken from the full address that was printed in the May 1967 issue of Ramparts magazine.
“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the Poverty Program. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
“. . . it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. . . . I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs re-structuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. . . . A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam ,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967
The YouTube clip below, Rev. King’s sermon “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam ,” given at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967, contains much of the text from the “Declaration.”
Readers will note that April 4, 1967, is one year to the day before King was assassinated in Memphis. A poem published in 1967 by the great American poet W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death ,” begins:
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
. . . .
One year to the day before he was to die (much too soon, too cruelly), Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking out against the moral injustice of the Vietnam War from a high pulpit. What, we might ask, am I doing with my time? What am I doing with my days, any one of which might be the pre-anniversary of the day when “the last fires will wave to me / And the silence will set out . . .” ?