By Robert Gooding-Williams
When I initially began thinking about my contribution to this week’s Uprising 8/13 event, I happened to be at home, recovering from back surgery and watching TV. One of the things I watched, that I binged watched, was the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Vietnam War series, and it will come as no surprise that I was especially interested to see how the Novick/Burns documentary treated Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
As it turns out, the Burns’s and Novick’s film completely omits to discuss the content of King’s speech; rather it folds a few references to King into a extended discussion of Dr. Benjamin’s Spock’s opposition to the war.
According to Peter Coyote’s voice-over, Spock wrote the preface “to an article in the leftist magazine Ramparts on the impact of American napalm on South Vietnamese children.” King had agonized over the war for months, but had been reluctant to break with Lyndon Johnson. But after reading Spock’s preface, Coyote tells us, King could “no longer stay silent.” No sooner has Coyote uttered these words than the scene shifts to an image of King speaking at Riverside Church, after which we see him with Spock 11 days later, participating in a march against the war organized by the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.
Sandwiching King’s Riverside speech between his reading of Spock and his marching with Spock, Burns and Novick ignore the central point of the speech, which was to connect King’s earlier career, his civil rights activism, to his opposition to the war. In King’s own words, “to state clearly…why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”
Burns’s and Novick’s omission of the content of King’s speech points to a general flaw in their emotionally gripping film: namely, its disposition to portray the war as a self-contained drama, ultimately a tragedy, that the soundtrack of its final moments, the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” encourages us to mourn and let go without further interrogation. In contrast, King demanded that we look “beyond Vietnam” to the “deeper malady” in the American spirit of which the Vietnam war was a symptom: “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people,” he writes, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
In my Uprising 8/13 remarks, I will examine the philosophical content of the commitment that led King along the path from Dexter Avenue and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Riverside Church and the anti-War movement. Specifically, I will argue that “Beyond Vietnam” extends to the topic of the Vietnam War two ideas that had shaped King’s commitment for years; two ideas that explain why the leader of the Bus Boycott and the author of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would feel obliged to come to the sanctuary of Riverside Church and declare that the time to break silence about the War was “now.” The first is the idea of human dignity. The second is the idea that mistaken views of time can deceive us into underestimating the importance of moral agency.