Martin Luther King, Jr. on America’s Spiritual Death


W.J. Astore

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a powerful speech (“Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”) that condemned America’s war in Vietnam. Exactly one year later, he was assassinated in Memphis.

What follows are excerpts from MLK’s speech. I urge you to read it in its entirety, but I’d like to highlight this line:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

MLK called for a revolution of values in America. In his address, he noted that:

There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

MLK didn’t just have a dream of racial equality. He had a dream for justice around the world, a dream of a world committed to peace, a world in which America would lead a reordering of values in the direction of universal brotherhood.

Both of MLK’s dreams remain elusive. Racial inequalities and biases remain, though America is better now than it was in the 1960s in regards to racial equity. And what of a commitment to peace? Sadly, America remains dedicated to war, spending nearly a trillion dollars yearly on defense, Homeland Security, nuclear weapons, and “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars.

America has failed to dream the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we are the worse for it. W.J. Astore

Excerpts from MLK’s Speech on Vietnam, April 4, 1967

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the — for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours…

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war…

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…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.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

9 thoughts on “Martin Luther King, Jr. on America’s Spiritual Death

  1. Thanks for posting this, Mr. Astore! Of course, it’s a gross understatement to note that the USA has failed to dream Dr. King’s dreams. One of the major political parties is actively engaged in trying to roll back every bit of social justice (gained with great difficulty against staunch resistance) achieved since…well, 1783 more or less!! (And the other merely pretends to uphold certain values.) Income inequality and its effects on the lower rungs of the economic ladder was, of course, of great concern to King. So it’s with delicious irony that it’s in today’s headlines that statisticians have projected that some time in 2016 the one percent of the world’s population constituting the economic/political/social elite of the elite will surpass in wealth the other 99% of the world’s population. Read that sentence again! I did not invent this news item. We shouldn’t be shocked by this, really, given the way things have been trending. Of course a nice little stock market crash would delay the timetable for this ignoble achievement of Capitalism. If I wasn’t an atheist I might PRAY for such a development!


  2. Another excerpt:
    This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.


    1. Thanks, Jerry. Yes, I see “God is love” all the time. Yet why do so many so-called believers insist on their version of God, and if you contradict it, why do they insist on responding with animosity or even hatred? So many people worship false gods of their own construction. I suppose that’s why they’re so resentful when you reject their version of god. They create a god in their own image — a god with all the sins of its human creator.


  3. Perhaps the answer to your question has to do with persons looking outside themselves for spiritual answers instead of within. Kind of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Yeh, “my unconditional love is superior to your version of unconditional love.” To be honest, my spiritual view corresponds with pantheism; that everything is sacred or of God. The late medicine man Rolling Thunder said “The most basic principle of all is that of not harming others. And that means all people, all life and all things”. Some look at the various spiritual traditions as facets of the diamond. Certain truths are inaccessible, and will only become known when one transitions/”dies”. Perhaps humanity’s acknowledgement and acceptance of actual oneness, helped along through using the tool called the internet, will lead to a new period of enlightenment where such wisdom creates a welcome next step up in the historic ladder of spiritual evolution.


    1. The essence of religious fundamentalism is a simpleminded blind acceptance of the literal truth of every word of the tradition in question. The primary commandment in such a belief system is THOU SHALT NOT QUESTION. This is the ultimate rejection of independent thought and intellectual inquiry, and embrace of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. And thus did Mark Twain observe: “Man is the only animal to have discovered the True Religion…several of them, in fact.”


      1. Few people understood the human condition better than Mark Twain — and how he skewered it! He’s right again with your quote, Greg.


  4. “There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood”. What a remarkable man! My admiration deepened years ago when viewing taped recordings of Dr. King on Meet the Press & Face the Nation (I think) in opposition to Vietnam (when almost no one else was).


  5. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a reminder of what he stood for: equality for all, and violence toward none. When not fighting racism, he fought against unjust wars, including America’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s. This made him unpopular, which didn’t bother MLK in the least. A man of great moral courage, he deserves to be celebrated in all his complexity and strength.


  6. My mother, “God Bless” her, an immigrant, had only her Catholic religion to guide her and her children. With minimal education crafted mainly from home and church life, she girded us with a value structure and desire to succeed. We lived to conform, be patriotic and to serve. Whatever MLK was saying we were told he and his kind were radical and “communist.” The government said so! We did not have the benefit of the internet to explore. As we got older and educated we realized the fraud perpetrated on us by “the power structure.” That structure still exists but the populace is smarter and more discerning. I continue to hope we can maintain the Republic.


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