Op-Ed: The Day I Heard Dr. King Speak at Riverside Church 


By Paul Rockwell


paul_rockwellForty-nine years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech that changed my life. I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1967, during the peak of the Vietnam war.


Almost by accident a friend invited me across the street to hear Dr. King deliver a comprehensive anti-war address at Riverside Church.


It is not the drama, the excitement of the occasion, nor King’s mellifluous voice passing over the hushed sanctuary as he described the holocaust of Indochina.


It is not even the way history later vindicated King’s teachings on war—everything he predicted came to pass—that makes his 1967 address so memorable to me.


It is the vitality of his teachings for our own lives, in an era of corporate globalization and blowback, that compels me to recall and reread the Peacemaker’s masterpiece once again.


The economic and moral crisis we are facing today—the mass incarceration of people of color; the endemic clutch of drugs, homelessness, and poverty of the working poor; the legalization of bribery in the name of “campaign finance;” the suffocation of millions of decent lives in the ghettos of our cities—all date back to that fateful turn when American leaders, pressured by big corporations, chose war over peace, empire over civil rights and social progress.


Dr. King saw our crisis coming. “A few years ago,” he began from his well-lit pulpit, speaking in reference to the anti-poverty programs, when America was moving forward—“A few years ago, there was a shining moment in our struggle.


It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the programs broken. I was compelled to see the war as the enemy of the poor.”


As Dr. King analyzed the hope-wrecking nature of war, I put down my pen, stopped taking notes, and listened with my heart, as he described, not only the devastation abroad, the injuries and scarred lives of the working class youth returning home, but the spiritual costs of imperialism—the mendacity of our leaders, the disillusionment of youth. “A nation,” he said, “that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”


The Vietnam war is past. The cold war is over. But King’s teachings about the sorrows of empire, the moral and social costs of militarism (There are 780 U.S. military bases throughout the world today, and the U.S. is the world’s largest arms salesman, the biggest “merchant of death” on Earth), are as timely today as they were 49 years ago, when I sat, shaken and stunned, in a polished pew at Riverside Church.


I left the church inspired by the intensity of the event. The following day, King’s patriotic address caused an outcry in the Media. Time magazine called it “demagogic slander, a script for Radio Hanoi.”


Nevertheless, I can still hear our teacher reciting the words of James Russell Lowell: “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.”


Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He lives in Oakland.



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