Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Silence Is Not Golden

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Times have changed since the zeitgeist of the Vietnam era. Today, it’s a different war in a different place and fought under different circumstances. This courageous speech, nevertheless, has great depth and speaks to the contemporary issues and attitudes that are as "incandescently" clear today as they were then.

I strongly urge you to take the time to read this very profound declaration by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence, written by his friend and speechwriter, Dr. Vincent Harding, and delivered on April 4, 1967. It is a speech given at great personal risk. It is a speech that will be pertinent for all time and for all people. It is the most significant speech of my lifetime on the issues of peace over war, and of the unacceptable neglect and exploitation of the world’s poor -- an exceedingly powerful speech that should awaken one’s conscience.

It’s a speech I will always remember as being more significant than his “I have a Dream” speech, in which he stressed the importance of nonviolent resistance, vividly painting his vision of a better future for people of all color, even though that speech is more celebrated. Not that one is better than the other, but because I feel his Vietnam speech is more universal.

At the time, Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and the Washington Post declared that Dr. King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

In the late 50s, I recall my contemporaries referring to Dr King in slanderous, hateful, and bigoted ways. They associated Dr. King’s movement with that of Malcolm X, who was an advocate for black separatism. They called Dr. King a communist, a hypocrite, and an adulterer.

In the early 60’s, I was a road musician traveling throughout New England, the Southern Atlantic states, the Deep South and along the fringes of the Midwestern states. My experience and observation of the treatment of black and brown Americans in the Deep South changed all that I had been told while living and working in Boston. The views of Time magazine, the Washington Post, and Bostonians toward Dr. King’s movement were misguided. While traveling in the Deep South, especially in rural areas, I was cautioned that it would be dangerous to give anyone a reason to believe I was a Northerner, and so, therefore, others who I was traveling with would speak for me, or go in to a business for me to purchase whatever I would need. So, I quickly recognized the enormity of risks Dr. King and civil rights activist were undertaking. From that point on, I developed a great admiration and respect for Dr. King and his work. That experience resulted in a major sea change in my life. As I learned more about Dr. King, it also introduced me to the non-violence philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.

Additionally, about that time, as I became more disheartened over Vietnam and with what I was personally experiencing, I gained an interest in what Dr. King was writing and saying in opposition to the Vietnam War. When I first read Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence I was sad, humbled, and not a very proud American. His words of war and peace, and of the poor, soon became my platform with friends, colleagues, and associates.

He said, A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The time is long overdue when Americans should not be silent regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. We should not be silent when we hear the war drums beating in relation to our difficulties with Iran. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly would not be silent. He would dust off his old speech on Vietnam, change a few keywords, and give precisely the same speech.

Through the prism of my experience, on MLK day I always reflect on, and I am amazed, just how far we have come, and yet, disappointingly, how far we have to go.