Reflections on King’s Address at Riverside Church

Listening to it again a few years back, I’ll admit it still made me uncomfortable. After all, both my father and father-in-law served active duty tours in Vietnam, and I am proud to have relatives who are veterans. But what I’ve realized is this – if you listen to MLK and he doesn’t make you uncomfortable or at least challenge you, you’re probably not really listening. MLK’s message was never intended to make people comfortable, but rather to call people to face a reality that needed to change. What I learned from King and still take to heart is that you cannot separate various parts of our life and faith into neat compartments.

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I grew up, as many of my generation did, learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in our history textbooks.  In fact, I remember, quite clearly, learning about MLK in 2nd grade.  We learned that MLK was a revered hero of our nation’s history who helped bring an end to segregation and helped propel the civil rights movement forward.  He was a non-violent, peace-loving hero – and that he was.

Beyond that, though, I must say, he was so much more – and that I didn’t know.  In seminary, I was required to read James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm in America.  This book was my first glimpse into a broader and richer picture of who Martin Luther King was.  Add to that reading his writings such as a “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” and the picture of Martin Luther King is a whole lot less comfortable for me as a white/caucasian person.

Without a doubt, though, the most powerful speech for me of King’s is not his “I Have a Dream Speech” – although that is his most famous.  For me, it was listening to his address entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” given at the historic Riverside Church in New York City.

Listening to it again a few years back, I’ll admit it still made me uncomfortable.  After all, both my father and father-in-law served active duty tours in Vietnam, and I am proud to have relatives who are veterans.  But what I’ve realized is this – if you listen to MLK and he doesn’t make you uncomfortable or at least challenge you, you’re probably not really listening.  MLK’s message was never intended to make people comfortable, but rather to call people to face a reality that needed to change.  What I learned from King and still take to heart is that you cannot separate various parts of our life and faith into neat compartments.  For King, Vietnam and the civil rights movement were interconnected.  From his speech:

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. (Link Here)

One year after he gave his speech at Riverside Church, King was tragically murdered on that Memphis Balcony, his life and ministry cut short.  As I reflect on my own life and the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I think we do a disservice if we fail to continue to hear and re-hear his words, in particular, those that challenge us and deepen our understanding of who King was.

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