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Another Voice: King's speech 50 years ago still resonates

By Russell Brown and Tom Casey

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence,” and the 49th anniversary of his assassination the day after his support of sanitation workers in Memphis. The speech received deep approval at Riverside Church in New York City and ferocious criticism from major newspapers.

Yet, it conveyed a message incredibly similar to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed … This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

King said, “A few years ago … It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program … Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated … And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor …”

In his speech King said “silence is betrayal,” speaking of the sacred American values he saw being diminished, values both men cherished, reflected in five powerful precepts by Eisenhower in 1953.

Two of them were: “No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice,” and, “A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.”

Today King’s speech and message appear forgotten by many people. One group, intimately aware of the costs and horrors of war, has not forgotten King’s speech: Veterans for Peace. These veterans have called for nationwide readings to commemorate the speech. (Buffalo’s will be in St. Paul’s Cathedral at 7 p.m. A workers march will begin at Main and Best streets at 3 p.m.)

The veterans work hard to increase the public’s awareness of the causes and costs of war. Like Eisenhower, who greatly upset all the military services with his defense budgets, the veterans call for a reduction in the Pentagon budget and a different approach than violent conflict to solve problems. Like Eisenhower in his 1961 “military-industrial complex” speech, they clearly warn us of the deep danger to America from the unprecedented, growing defense industry that can undermine democracy.

The Veterans for Peace truly live King’s words to change the triple evils of “racism, militarism and materialism” and Eisenhower’s, “Though force can protect us in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and co-operation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace,” as well as the words of another leader, who the night before his death told Peter to “put down your sword.”

Russell Brown is the head of Veterans For Peace Chapter 128. Tom Casey is regional coordinator for Pax Christi Western New York.

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