Dr. King’s Forgotten Agenda

March 8th, 2010, by


When you think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you probably think of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But what do you think about his “Beyond Vietnam” speech?

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech?

Well, you’re not alone.

On Wednesday, March 31, the second installment of Tavis Smiley Reports explores the forgotten agenda of Dr. King by examining the “Beyond Vietnam” speech that he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967 and the subsequent loss of his popularity in the last year of his life.

The speech at Riverside not only joined the anti-war and civil rights movements, but it also included a searing indictment of U.S. foreign policy when Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Listen to the audio and read a transcript of the speech here. And be sure to tune in to “MLK: A Call to Conscience” on Wednesday, March 31. 

  • Ron

    Thanks for sharing this. I had not heard of this prior to you sharing. The complexity of MLK never surprises me; the complex nature of hatred and vitriol towards MLK is one that I will never be able to understand.

  • William

    I am not sure if you will get this. I hope you do.
    I have not seen all your debates over a “Black Agenda” but I wanted to give a quick comment to the debate.
    There would have been no civil rights movement without a black agenda. Having a black agenda, hispanic agenda, gay agenda, and anyone else that is having their civil rights railroaded. Black folks today still deal with racial inequality. Our species has lived millions of years segregated and enslving one another. We are but at the dawning of the new way of life for humans. A way of freedom and equality, the likes of which have never been seen on earth before. It is false to think that in just 40-50 years we have completely tackled the challenges of enslavement of others and racial divides; not just false but may I submit ignorant of us to do so.
    To continually advance civil rights for any group, an agenda is required. Obama is the president of us all but civil rights requires precise understanding of issues that are unique to a few sometimes. He can not fix health care by creating a jobs bill. Likewise he cannot fix racial inequality by fixing health care. Each challenge requires it own unique action and response.
    Thank you if you have read this. Please forward to Tavis. I think his messege is very important to all of america not one specific race or ethnicity.

  • Shannon Kringen

    i wish MLK was our current president. i fully agree with MLK’s views on poverty, war, racism, civil rights, empire, us foreign policy etc. what a brilliant man and amazing brave speech “Beyond Vietnam” it does very much apply today.

  • Joseph Ross

    As a poet and teacher, I was deeply moved by your examination of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam.” A class I teach at American University just read Dr. King’s “Why We Can’t Wait” and I was so struck by their responses to his writing. Thank you for the thoughtful and moving program. You’re doing great work. I’d love to be a part of it.

  • Karen Dorr

    As relevant today as it was then; a brilliant speech!
    Thank you Tavis Smiley for educating today’s audience.

  • Ahmad Daniels

    I was serving as a volunteer in the US Marine Corps when Dr. King took his bold stand against the war in Viet Nam. My own opposition would later result in my being sentenced to 10 years at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge for encouraging other Black Marines to question whether we (Blacks) should fight in South East Asia when in the summer of 1967 tanks were rolling down the streets of Newark and Detroit. The legal acumen of the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in my being honorably discharged after twenty-nine months of confinement. Dr. King’s “Call to Conscience” was necessary if he was to remain in keeping with his views on justice “…Peace is more than the absence of war, it is the prsence of justice.” What America was inflicting on the people in Viet Nam was unjust and I will remain eternally gratefully for Dr. King’s decision to use the “bully” pulpit as a way of allowing his clarion call for peace and justice to be heard far and wide.

  • Clarisse Dodge

    Tavis, You’ve Hit the Nail Right on its Head! Your Analogies could NOT be more on the Accurate, and on Point.
    MLK’s Advocacy on Non-Violence, in Vietnam; the Expenses the Johnson Administration was incurring, while concurrently trying to implement the Civil Rights Movement; and our Current Situation, are not just Simlilar. They’re IDENTICAL!
    Just as Your Special Implied, we are, once again at the Crossroads, whereby–this time it is Pres. Obama–who will, sooner or later, have to Face the same Decisions Johnson skirted.
    Thank you, for this Wonderful Special :). (I just Hope Pres. Obama gets to watch this, and realize the same Analogies.

  • Michelle Smith

    The PBS show on Beyond Vietnam was excellent. Thanks for doing it because it gave a lot of important background on the speech and the pivotal role it played in subsequent events. There was a similar speech called “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” that I bought at the MLK Center in Atlanta in about 1998 on tape (very crackly recording) and I wore it out because I played it so much and had to buy 2 more replacements. That speech really changed my world view – no wonder it was seen as such a threat! In my mind it is the most powerful speech in US history and it’s a shame it’s not part of the school curriculum. Maybe one day…

  • btraven

    What a disappointment that you made no mention of the significant influence of leading Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh on the evolution of MLK’s thinking about the war. King quotes TNH in his speech and notes the importance of the independent buddhist movement, a genuine third force for democracy in Vietnam against both the US and the stalinist north. MLK nominated TNH for the Nobel Peace Prize. It would have been particularly poignant to note TNH’s importance to MLK in light of President Obama’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama prior to his trip to China.

  • aline lambert

    Although I had not immigrated yet in 1967, MLK views on Vietnam were known in France. What I do not understand is that he was denigrated for “assuming” a foreign policy stance when , in truth, as he says in the speech introduction: “I join with you…because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together –clergy and laymen concerned about vietnam”. How clearer could it be. Great program. Thanks for opening doors for me (virtually).

  • Lizette Lopez De Arriaga

    The special on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struck an emotional cord so profound it opened the door to an evening of tears. Tears for the knowing of just how deeply deprived we are of Dr. King’s vision, courage and love today. Tears for the lack of ‘people-oriented’ and truth guided leadership in this country. Most importantly tears for the unity and courage lost from the millions of Americans whose hopes and dreams were illuminated on one January 21st, 2009.
    Thank you for being so committed to this important work. God Bless you.

  • Kyva Holman

    My God… I mean *shaking my head* Oh my God… this man’s incorruptible moral integrity; his insight, his HUMILITY. He was truly a visionary and a prophet. His inner illumination was a beacon unto the world and he suffered dearly for it over and over again until making the final sacrifice for it. And if we are to believe that deeply chilling feeling we get when we watch his last Mountaintop speech, he gave his life for the cause in some unfathomable act of “knowing” his time was at hand. Truly the world is a better place for having had such a dynamic, committed, erudite, endlessly profound leader. And as a black male I must say that although I’d be grateful for ANYONE with a message of love, peace and justice that powerful, I am doubly moved that he was a black man. I’ve felt for a long time, and continue to feel, that the contours of the African American struggle against racism, slavery and oppression right from the beginning has given African Americans a strange, yet exalted position as the very soul and conscience of this country. We always have been, and continue to be, the Achilles Heel of white supremacy. It’s deeply unfortunate that we’ve been so thoroughly divested of our awareness, explicit or subconscious, of our unique role today. Too many leaders with stealthily subversive agendas; too many “keepin it real” cultural poseurs secretly doing the bidding of corporations, too many self-obsessed thugs, too many “gangsta-b’s” – too many of us seem to have left the Good Reverend’s transformative messages to the shifting, burying sands of time. Oh, for the days when we walked together with love and purpose! Yes we fought each other: integrationists and nationalists, young and old, men and women, etc., but there was in the midst of it all a common sense of carrying the race FORWARD, of CELEBRATING who and what we are, of CHERISHING one another. Black was beautiful. What we find now is a carrying backward; a denigration, a sneering mockery of who and what we are, and what seems to me too many times like a loathing of one another. I hope to help change that in my own small way and am working on a book which unpacks these issues on a racial, human and cosmic level. And I was glad for this program because it corrected a very grievous error I was about to make by way of an assertion that the black community was for the most part behind Dr. King when he took this unimaginably courageous moral stance. I was born in 1969… too late to be involved. And, forgetting something I already sort of knew but forgot in the passion of writing, asserted to my point about us being the collective conscious that that black leaders supported King’s shift to denouncing the Vietnam War. But in fact he only distanced himself, marginalized himself for taking a position that has been vindicated by history. 42 years later, we get it that he was RIGHT. Black opinion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is largely negative and black enlistment rates have been plummeting for years now. I don’t know whether it’s “supreme irony” or “everyday realpolitic” that Dr. King’s ineffably resplendent legacy is invoked by an African American president who is BOTH beneficiary of the movement Dr. King led AND the most supreme violator of the principles he espoused so eloquently. At any rate, it’s clear to me that something appropriating Dr. King’s genuine leadership is needed now more than EVER in our collapsing, unraveling, chaotic historical moment. May the new leaders emerge: drinking fully from the eternal wellspring of the Good Reverend’s prophetic ministry! ASHE…

  • Lumumba Shabaka

    The program on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking out against the Vietnam Way and poverty in the USA was timely and informative. Dr. King was truly inspirational and courageous, who served as a moral compass in the “imperialist space, as Dr. Cornel West noted, in the US empire. Dr. King’s radicalization, which arguably began with the 1965 Poor People’s Campaign in the north of the USA made him more sensitive to poverty and black rage in the ghettos of the North. One can argue that he began to move way from civil rights to human rights to focus, that is, granting full citizenship and ending of racial segregation was insufficient in a capitalist (profit-driven) society.
    Mr. Smiley, I believe you should also do a program on Malcolm X and his denunciation of poverty and his courageous and scathing repudiation of the Vietnam War in 1963, before Dr. King. As Dr. Manning Marable said Malcolm X was ahead of his time and a harbinger of Dr King’s stance on Vietnam War and poverty. However, Malcolm X advocated self-defense unlike Dr. King, but both of these brave and exemplary leaders were beginning to build a common and united front to bring about social, political and economic transformation of the exploited and oppressed in the USA, starting with their people, but moving beyond to include all the marginalized. In his last days, Malcolm embraced the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, but wanted and was in the process of doing it on his own terms. Thus, I believe focusing on Malcolm and the crosscurrent of these two phenomenal leaders can only shed-light on the deep transformational potentiality that these leaders made. Nonetheless, these leaders were only part of a colossal impetus that emanated from the ordinary people that made history possible. They must be historicized and lionized as “great men” of history but part of larger processes in which they embodied the hopes and dreams and actions of their communities.

  • Alice Darby

    You have done it again Tavis. Remarkable program on Dr. King. I vaguely remember him being hung out to dry for his opposition to the war, but had never heard Beyond Vietnam before. Unbelievably courageous. It made me cry when you talked to Dr. Harding for 2 reasons. I was blessed enough to grow up while a truly great American leader walked this earth. But our children have not been. Some very bad, some good, but not great. They broke the mold w/that one, but that’s no excuse for mediocrity. And then Dr. West made me laugh out loud w/his rapier wit. Amen brother. Thank you Tavis for bringing inspiration in these disappointing days. But I will keep the faith, and leave you w/this. “If you want peace, work for justice.” Paul 6…If only our President would read that scripture, and watch Beyond Vietnam. Who knows? Miracles happen.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 11:17 am