Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Keep Dissent Alive

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For too long the moral appeal has been flickering, not shining as it did in its dynamic days of growth.

Excerpts from “Domestic Impact of the War,” a speech given in November 1967 to the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The troubled conscience of the working people can not be stilled. You here today will long be remembered as those who had the courage to speak out and the wisdom to be right.

What are some of the domestic consequences of the war in Vietnam? It has made the Great Society a myth and replaced it with a troubled and confused society. The war has strengthened domestic reaction. It has given the extreme right, the anti-labor, anti-Negro, and anti-humanistic forces a weapon of spurious patriotism to galvanize its supporters into reaching for power, right up to the White House. It hopes to use national frustration to take control and restore the America of social insecurity and power for the privileged. When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor can become a leading war hawk candidate for the Presidency, only the irrationalities induced by a war psychosis can explain such a melancholy turn of events.

The war in Vietnam has produced a shameful order of priorities in which the decay, squalor, and pollution of the cities are neglected. And even though 70% of our population now live in them, the war has smothered, and nearly extinguished, the beginnings of progress toward racial justice. The war has created the bizarre spectacle of armed forces of the United States fighting in ghetto streets in America while they are fighting in jungles in Asia. The war has so increased Negro frustration and despair that urban outbreaks are now an ugly feature of the American scene. How can the Administration, with quivering anger, denounce the violence of ghetto Negroes when it has given an example of violence in Asia that shocks the world.

The users of naval guns, millions of tons of bombs, and revolting napalm can not speak to Negroes about violence. Only those who are fighting for peace have the moral authority to lecture on non-violence.

Now I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not equating the so-called Negro violence with the war. The acts of Negroes are infinitely less dangerous and immoral than the deliberate acts of escalation of the war in Vietnam. In fact, the Negroes in the ghetto, goaded and angered by discrimination and neglect, have for the most part deliberately avoided harming persons. They have destroyed property. But even in the grip of rage, the vast majority have vented their anger on inanimate things, not people. If destruction of property is deplorable, what is the word for the use of napalm on people? What would happen to Negroes if they not only set fires but killed people in the vicinity and explained blandly that some known combatants had to die as a matter of course? Negroes would be called savages if we were so callous. But for generals it is military tactics.

In the past two months unemployment has increased approximately 15%. At this moment tens of thousands of people and anti-poverty programs are being abruptly thrown out of jobs and training programs to search in a diminishing job market for work and survival. It is disgraceful that a Congress that can vote upwards of $35 billion a year for a senseless immoral war in Vietnam cannot vote a weak $2 billion dollars to carry on our all too feeble efforts to bind up the wound of our nations 35 million poor. This is nothing short of a Congress engaging in political guerilla warfare against the defenseless poor of our nation.

The inflation of war cuts the pay of the employed, the pension check of the retired, and the savings of almost everyone. Inflation has stopped creeping and has begun running. Working people feel the double impact of inflation and unemployment immediately. But Negroes feel its impact with crushing severity because they live on the margin in all respects and have no reserve to cushion shock. There is a great deal of debate about the nation’s ability to maintain war and commit the billions required to attack poverty. Theoretically the United States has resources for both. But an iron logic dictates that we shall never voluntarily do both for two reasons.

First, the majority of the present Congress and the Administration, as distinguished from the majority of the people, is single mindedly devoted to the pursuit of the war. It has been estimated by Senator (Harkey) that we spend approximately $500,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam. And yet we spend about $53 for each impoverished American in anti-poverty programs. Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to the war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.

Second, the government will resist committing adequate resources for domestic reform because these are reserves indispensable for a military venture. The logical war requires of a nation deploy its well fought and immediate combat and simultaneously that it maintain substantial reserves. It will resist any diminishing of its military power through the draining off of resources for the social good. This is the inescapable contradiction between war and social progress at home.

Military ventures must stultify domestic progress to ensure the certainty of military success. This is the reason the poor, and particularly Negroes, have a double stake in peace and international harmony. This is not to say it is useless to fight for domestic reform, on the contrary, as people discover in the struggle what is impeding their progress they comprehend the full and real cost of the war to them in their daily lives.

Another tragic consequence of the war domestically is its destructive effect on the young generation. There can not be enough sympathy for those who are sent into battle. More and more it is revealed how many of our soldiers cannot understand the purpose of their sacrifice. It is harrowing under any circumstance to kill but it is psychologically devastating to be forced to kill when one doubts it is right.

The nature of our government is also under scrutiny by the young generation. I have spoken in recent years before hundreds of thousands of young people in their colleges, in the slums, in churches and synagogues. Their comments and questions reflect a sharply rising body of opinion that the inability to influence government to adopt urgent reforms is not a consequence of any superficial ignorance, lethargy or prejudice, but is systemic.

There is more serious discussion today about basic structural change in our society, that I can recall, over a decade. We have thus far avoided a recrudescence of McCarthyism. It is constantly threatening but it has not yet been able to gain a secure foothold. It is not for lack of trying by the ubiquitous Congressional committees. They are trying to bring down a blanket of intimidation, but a healthy resistance holds them in check. We must constantly be alert to this danger because if its evil is added to all the others, we will have opened the door to other national disasters.

It is worth remembering that there is a strong strain of dissent in the American tradition even in time of war. During the Mexican War, the intellectual elite of the nation, Emerson, Thoreau, and many others were withering critics of our national policy. In the Congress, a relatively unknown first term congressman made a scathing address on the floor denouncing that war. The young congressman was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. At the same time a young army lieutenant almost decided to resign his commission to protest the war. His name was Ulysses Grant. So we must keep dissent alive and not allow it to become another casualty of the war in Vietnam.

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

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