Although perhaps best remembered for his iconic “I have a dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial a century after the abolition of slavery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave speeches that were more illuminating of his life’s journey, and, arguably, more important.
His address at the Riverside Church was one of those.
Delivered exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, the speech marked a decisive break with the Johnson Administration, which had been supportive of the civil rights movement, over an issue that King saw as defining for the nation he loved dearly and the world: the war in Vietnam.
It was a far different time than August of 1963.
King had suffered what many saw as a stinging defeat in Chicago in 1966 and the rejection of his call for non-violence in other northern cities, many of which had seen destructive riots. He had been criticized by advocates of Black Power who deemed him insufficiently radical and by whites who found him too radical.
Indeed, some had started derisively calling him, “Martin Loser King.”
King called the address, “A Time to Break Silence.”
In it, he did just that, delineating the seven reasons why he considered it a moral imperative to declare his opposition to the war that ultimately claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and more than two million people.
Before he did that, though, King described the place from where entered his oration. He acknowledged that he was speaking humility and limited information.
He also acknowledged his own culpability on the issue:
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.
That path was changed irreversibly both by his role as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott-a position for which he was chosen in part by local leadership because he was a comparatively recent arrival-and his selection in 1964 as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Taylor Branch, who spent a quarter century chronicling America in the King years, argues that much of the remainder of King’s life can be found in his Oslo address in which he decried the three issue of racial injustice, poverty and war.
King explained that the Nobel Peace Prize was “a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’”
In the Riverside speech, King refers to Montgomery and Oslo, asserting that there was a line that stretched from the bus boycott via Oslo to the New York church.
Of course, there were many other important stops along the way, and King refers to them.
He talks about the lessons he had learned from his time spent in Northern cities after the legal apartheid in the South had been dismantled.
He referred in his opening statement to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the erudite refugee from Nazi Germany who marched with him from Selma to Montgomery.
Above all, and at base, though, King was a Christian.
In the address, he explains that he speaks because he “must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.”
King knew that his speech would have a cost with the Johnson Administration and other erstwhile supporters, but it was one he was willing to bear.
After going through the reasons for speaking and identifying the five steps he believed the American government needed to take-these included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam and declaring a unilateral cease fire-King advanced his larger argument about what was necessary: a true revolution of values.
King used the word “revolution” consciously.
Indeed, one of the chief characteristics of King’s odyssey from Montgomery to Memphis was the continual expansion of his vision.
Whereas the first proposal of the Montgomery Improvement Association accepted segregation but simply asked for kinder treatment by the bus drivers, by 1968 King was preparing to lead a Poor People’s Campaign and calling for a radical distribution of wealth.
At the Riverside church, King explained that the revolution of values he endorsed would lead Americans to question the fairness and justice of many past and present policies.
It would look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
It would say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”
This prophetic voice and global vision extended beyond the perspective of shared brotherhood King so stirringly evoked at the Mall in Washington.
The address recapitulated the journey he had taken since graduating from Boston University and moving to a quiet parish, and pointed the way for the nation and the world to move forward.
King knew that in all likelihood he would not leave to see his vision fulfilled. Stephen Oates recounts in his biography of King how he turned to his wife Coretta when Kennedy was shot and told he that he would not live to see 40.
But if he lived each day with the knowledge of his demise at the hands of another, so, too, did King take his limited time as reason to push himself not to segregate his concern, but to find within himself the courage to articulate his visions and belief in the fullest way possible.
In the Riverside address he did just that.