On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Refused to Separate the Call for Rights from a Critique of Militarism

52 years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave perhaps his most famous speech ever, declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War and the system of militarism from which it emanated. In explaining why he had to take this stance, King talked about his experience interacting with young Black men arming themselves in self defense in the inner cities of the United States. He explained:

"My third reason [for taking this stance] moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.”[1]

At the time, the civil rights leaders in the United States saw that as an unhelpful "politicization." They just wanted to talk about civil rights, and not “complicate” things with a critique of the whole system of organized violence.

Today, many leaders in the human rights community have a similar problem. They want to talk about human rights abuses as problems in and of themselves, rather than discussing them in context with a political-economic system that is upheld by systemic violence. When we introduce the historical and political-economic context, and call for proportionality in naming the different levels of violence, they call this “taking a political position.”

But like King knew then, we know now that the moral question has been called. He knew then and we know now that people of conscience can never again preach against the violence of the oppressed without first having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence. In Ambazonia, that culprit is the neocolonial military state that Cameroon is and has been ever since its inception.

So clear is this reality to those with eyes to see that a one-time political opposition member and Cameroonian minister Issa Tchroma once describe the Cameroon Peace as a “peace of the graveyard.” [2]

As long as we justify and normalize the Cameroon military state at any level, we will never gain traction over the deeper questions that are driving the dissent.
- What are the economic reasons that this military control must be maintained?
- Who is benefiting from these arrangements?
- Who is gaining one more day of life on Easy Street, on the backs of those living in perpetual poverty and insecurity?

Later in the same speech, King set us a course. Those who choose to can follow it:

"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."[1]

Exactly a year after speaking these words, 51 years ago today, King was shot down.

Rest in Peace, rest in Power, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. May your words and witness inform all those who today work sincerely for the liberation of Africa and the dignity and empowerment of all the people of African descent, and all people of the Earth. May your sacrifice not have been in vain.

Listen to or read MLK’s full speech here:

Written by Amy Dalton with assistance from Eben Egbe

1- http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm
2- https://journals.openedition.org/tipa/1571?lang=en