“When Silence is Betrayal”

If the United States is to get on the ‘right side’ of world events, it must declare ‘eternal hostility’ to poverty, racism and militarism.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first major speech on the war in Vietnam. In the speech, to the group Clergy and Layman Concerned, King calls for a “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society”- and insists that the “demands of inner truth” supercede unquestioning loyalty to government.

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

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 to our limited vision, but we must speak. …

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. …

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing Clergy and Laymen Concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa.

We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. .

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. .

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 restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. .

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.” .

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate… .

Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.

To read the entire text of the speech, go to the College of Social Science at Michigan State University website at www.ssc.msu.edu/~sw/dates/mlk/brkslnc.htm.

Teaching Ideas

Write the speech that Martin Luther King might deliver today if he were alive. It should cover the events of September 11, “terrorism” of all kinds, and the war in Afghanistan – but can cover other topics as well.

Do you think Dr. King would support U.S. policies today? What evidence from his speech supports your conclusion? What policies would he urge?

King talks about the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. In what ways are these giant triplets at work in today’s crisis? Ask students to make charts headed with these categories and to list all the ways they see these forces at work in the current circumstances. Ask them to choose one of the triplets and design a poster illustrating it.

Write a dialogue between Dr. King and another individual: you, George W. Bush, a member of the Taliban, one of the September 11 attackers, someone who fled the bombing of Afghanistan, a refugee in a camp in Gaza or the West Bank, etc.

This article is also available as a letter-size PDF for student handouts

Winter 2001 / 2002