Breaking the Silence—an Intergenerational Call for Unity and Action
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed … without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words—delivered at New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 exactly one year prior to his assassination in 1968— resonate even more deeply now than when he first spoke them.Dr. King’s address was controversial at the time because it marked his articulation of the relationship between the struggle for civil rights domestically and the global struggle against what he referred to as “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” At the time, his speech, known as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” drew intense criticism from institutions ranging from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the NAACP. Many felt he had moved outside of his narrow lane. As America exports that toxic cocktail abroad and continues to wage war against the poor, Dr. King’s words still ring as prophetic.
As representatives of both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions, it is also significant that the anniversaries of Dr. King’s Riverside Church speech and his assassination this year happen to fall on both the final day of Passover and Easter Sunday. On the same day that Jews recall their Exodus from slavery and Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection; we are reminded that Dr. King used the language of faiths to condemn violence and injustice perpetrated in our name by the government of the United States. “Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now,” he said. “I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam.”
King’s target in 1967 was the escalating American war in Vietnam while decreasing the war on poverty but in 2021 we could just as easily substitute Black Lives, Native Americans or the poor and his charge would ring true as ever in the United States. Clearly it is our own humanity that is at stake.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” he preached. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
That night in 1967, Dr. King offered us a vision of how we might come closer to a culture of peace with justice. Over a half century later, that vision has an urgency in terms of racial, social, economic and climate justice for our daily lives and our future that he couldn’t possibly have imagined.
We invite you and the communities you lead or are part of to join us on April 4, 2021 at 7 PM EDT for our national webinar where a diverse group of leaders, luminaries and thinkers from all walks of life will recreate his prophetic speech and discuss its relevance for organizing today. Learn more and register for the free webinar at www.kingandbreakingsilence.org.
Rev. Becky Anderson, Assisting Priest, St. Luke’s Good Shepherd Churches Pawtucket RI
Rev. Cheryl Beard, CEO The Rosa T. Beard Debutante Club, Inc.
The Reverend Micah Bucey, Minister, Judson Memorial Church
Rev. Janet M. Cooper-Nelson, Chaplain of the University, Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, Brown University
Rev. John Fife, Pastor Emeritus, Southside Presbyterian Church, Co-founder of Sanctuary Movement ‘80s
Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Emerita, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel
Rev. Eve McMaster, Pastor Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Gainesville
Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church