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What MLK Said To President Biden on April 4, 1967.

Posted on | January 19, 2021 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

Yesterday (in honor of Martin Luther King Day), and today (in prepartion for the Inauguration of our new President), I listened and re-listened to Dr. King’s famous Vietnam Speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.

I remembered this speech as a turning point in my sophomore year in a Jesuit College committed to social justice – the realization that justice travels down more than one path at a time – and that truth often hurts before it has a chance to help.

In the speech, King explains the origins of that evening in response to an earlier declaration by the leadership at Riverside Church. As he states, “I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’…the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”

A little further on, he acknowledges his own followers discomfort with his outspoken position on Vietnam, with these words: “‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”

By mid-speech, Dr. King reveals himself – to the audience that evening, but also to all of us now – having lived through January 6th and on the eve of President Biden’s inauguration. He says:

“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. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”

Near the end of his 1 hour oration, interrupted again and again by sustained applause, Dr. King asserts, “There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood… a genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional…a fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.” 

And near the very end, he sees clear eyed to 2021, “speaking” to President Biden himself:

(a caution) “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs.”

(a challenge) “This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?”

(and a choice) “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history…If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

Comments

2 Responses to “What MLK Said To President Biden on April 4, 1967.”

  1. Sue Ross
    January 21st, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    How interesting that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, chose as their motto: ‘To save the soul of America.’ and President Biden in his inaugural speech told America that his “whole soul was in this.” There is something very powerful about the term soul…it is stronger than heart…it is more like, your full heart with conviction…it communicates that every last bit of you is tied to achieving what you have set out to do. Although President Biden may not go as far as some would like to remedy the ills that plague our society and world, I believe he is a unifier of the highest order and exactly what our country needs right now.

  2. Mike Magee
    January 21st, 2021 @ 2:06 pm

    Thanks, Sue, for your insightful comment. I agree, as with MLK, Biden is a leader with a strong spiritual core, driven to achieve what he believes is best for our nation as a whole. The pressing question: How many of us will rise to the occasion?

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