Most Americans remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his dream of what this country could be, a nation where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While those words from 1963 are necessary, his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” from 1967, is actually the more insightful one.
It is also a much more dangerous and disturbing speech, which is why far fewer Americans have heard of it. And yet it is the speech that we needed to hear then–and need to hear today.
In 1963, many in the U.S. had only just begun to be aware of events in Vietnam. By 1967, the war was near its peak, with about 500,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. The U.S. would drop more explosives on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than it did on all of Europe during World War II, and the news brought vivid images depicting the carnage inflicted on Southeast Asian civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom would die. It was in this context that King called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”