MLK’s message is present tense

As we celebrate the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. today, renewing our commitment to universal equality and justice, we also need to find a way out of complacency–if not futility–at the prospect of ensuring civil rights for every man, woman, and child. To that end, King offers much more than one great speech.

We’ll catch sound bites of “I Have a Dream,” or maybe even hear the entire speech, and be reminded, especially in light of racial profiling and police brutality reported in our current daily news, that the struggle for racial equality “will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.” Please, let it be so.

The iconic performance we all associate with the man., impassioned, blazing oration carefully tailored for broad appeal, the “I Have a Dream” speech follows a strong rhetorical tradition in ethos and pathos.

I’d like to draw your attention to another King speech appealing to our humanity not only through our sense of fairness and compassion, but more so through our faculty of reason. One year to the day before his assassination, King delivered “Beyond Vietnam” to an audience of nearly 3000 at Riverside Church, New York. A pristine example of logos-directed rhetoric, the speech lays out four main arguments for pulling out of what was already becoming a protracted war in Vietnam.

Explicitly addressing the American people–as opposed to heads of state–King presents a bulletproof condemnation of the war citing historical data and concrete, observable evidence. He argues the war in Vietnam is…

1. financially irresponsible
2. socially hypocritical
3. strategically ill-conceived
4. ethically catastrophic

Regardless of whether you find these arguments germane critique of recent American actions, “Vietnam and Beyond” is appropriately forward thinking in its thrust. Read the speech here. Even in the text, you will find a voice of magnitude and conviction disturbingly prescient to where we sit as a nation today. You will recognise King’s signature iterations of hope; but you will come away, overwhelmingly, with a reignited passion to effect change.

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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.

–Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4th, 1967, New York

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