Header image description: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church in New York City. He stands in front of a small podium and a microphone. There are three white men sitting at a long table behind him. On the wall of the church behind Dr. King, there is a cross; on a table underneath the cross are two tall candles with an open bible between them.
My favorite Dr. King speech is “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” It was delivered on April 4, 1967 — exactly one year before his assassination — at Riverside Church in New York. I love it because it gets at the core of what was (and still is) wrong with the United States: racism, unnecessary poverty, and a love of violence. In the speech, the civil rights leader speaks out against not only the war in Vietnam, but “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
This speech is a far cry from the watered-down, centrist, passive version of MLK typically “honored” on his namesake holiday. It’s explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and pointedly directed at war hawks and liberal enablers of the military-industrial complex. Besides that, it also calls for us to love and respect all people regardless of who they are. While right-wingers and white supremacists like to utilize that logic to tell us we should respect their “beliefs,” Dr. King meant that we need to love and respect people half a world away, American or not.
A few days ago, I wrote a “golden shovel” poem in honor of the holiday and this particular speech. A golden shovel is a poetic form where the last word of each line is taken from a poem, song lyric, or some other quote. In my golden shovel, found below, the last word of each line spells out two of my favorite quotes from Beyond Vietnam: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” and “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
beyond tolerance: a golden shovel in honor of Dr. King
No matter your political predilections, you are still a
Person who is white. Therefore, there will come a time
Of dissonance between your doctrines & deeds. It comes
If you choose comfort over compassion. It comes when
You embrace pernicious parts of whiteness, when silence
Benefits you better than your privilege-rich voice. That is
The point at which you have committed an act of betrayal.
And when that hour is upon us, I can tell you that we
Will no longer be able to continue as we currently are —
A state where we who are Black are constantly confronted
With the unchangeable truth of who you are, tasked with
Bearing the violence of your whiteness. At that point, the
Entire energy of your entitlement will surface: that fierce
Flood of your social authority. You will try with urgency
To prove the depths of your acceptance, the totality of
Your tolerance. That point is always; that point is now.