“He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. ‘Ye shall know the truth,’ says Jesus, ‘and the truth shall set you free.’ Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal…
Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition…
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…
Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love…
America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State — they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America’s strayed away…
And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.'”
Some favorite sections from Martin Luther King’s sermon “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”, spoken at Riverside Church in New York, on April 30th, 1967. Find it in his collected speeches.
As a small note: King was channeling John F. Kennedy when he cited Dante above. In 1963, when he was signing the charter that established the German Peace Corps in Bonn, West Germany, Kennedy remarked, “Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” This comment is probably based on a simplistic reading of the third canto of The Inferno.
But since I’ve just slogged through the relevant part of Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Dante, I feel I can be petty enough to say that both King and Kennedy seem to have never picked up The Divine Comedy. In Dante’s vision of the underworld, it is traitors — not cowards or equivocators — who get it the worst. In Kokytos, the ninth and final circle of the underworld, there are four concentric rings, starting with Caina, for traitors to blood relatives (hence, “Cain”), and ending with Judecca, for those who are traitorous to their masters. I’ll let you infer the namesake of that circle. And one more thing, the punishment isn’t fire; it’s ice.
…Well, that got morbid. Back to King. His opposition to Vietnam was so unwavering and so cogent. Dissent is not disloyalty; but, then as now, people don’t seem to get that. They assume that supporting government policy, even in its most baseless and ruinous permutations, is equatable to supporting the people whom government is tasked with representing. And as one of the vast majority of Americans who explicitly oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t help but overlay his comments atop the decade-high pile of imperial waste we have just burned through.
Watch a short clip of King discussing Muhammad Ali in the context of the Vietnam War:
Listen to the entire opposition speech:
More from Dr. King:
The Mountaintop: Martin Luther King’s Last Speech
How You Should Break the Law
Loving Your Enemies