By Mark Silverberg
On April 5, twenty-one Cleveland grassroots organizations came gathered for a virtual meeting to commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” of April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. The historic speech condemned the Vietnam War and called for the end of militarism, racism, and poverty.
It represented a significant expansion of Dr. King’s thinking on the root causes of the challenges U.S. society faced. The local program, co-sponsored by The Cleveland Observer, included readings of Dr. King’s speech by local activists and a panel discussion moderated by LaTonya Goldsby of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, which focused on how lessons from the prophetic speech can be realized throughout Northeast Ohio. The Cleveland coalition coordinated with the national Breaking the Silence effort which is committed to the objectives Rev. Dr. King named in his speech.
A national online event — Breaking the Silence An Intergenerational Call for Unity — was held on April 4. It included a public reading Dr. King’s speech by well-known readers including Alice Walker, Jane Fonda, Edward James Olmos, Dr. Ibram Kendi, and others, as well as a spirited panel discussion. The national coalition’s work sparked over 30 events across the country which included Cleveland. Their multi-year purpose includes encouraging the formation of local coalitions to eliminate militarism, racism, and extreme materialism – the core issues Dr. King addressed.
Following the speech, Dr. King’s challenge to engage in a radical revolution of values encountered ferocious opposition. Mainstream media castigated him for speaking out about foreign policy, consigning his expertise only to racial justice. Civil rights leaders criticized him for diluting the single focus on racism. Rev. Dr. King replied that he was continuing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) commitment to “save the soul of America,” by calling for an end to the devastation in Vietnam and the stagnation and decay of the war on poverty in the United States. As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Award, he felt he had the responsibility to speak out for peace. For some, his “Breaking Silence” speech was the primary reason he was killed exactly a year later to the day. While confronting deeply rooted racism, militarism, and materialism, Dr. King described the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
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 a new sense of urgency in terms of racial, social, economic and climate justice and his call to eliminate violence, both foreign and domestic, to secure a healthy, thriving future. Truly, as Dr. King said, “… we are confronted by the fierce urgency of Now,” as the local coalition members feel in their work going forward.