Today, January 15, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years of age if he had not been tragically gunned down on April 4, 1968.
Dr. King’s legacy is large, and much of the progress we have
made in race relations, although still inadequate, is due to his
unwavering belief and commitment to justice, freedom, and equality for
Yet, while we look back on his life and work
with great admiration, many people, and mostly young people, are unaware
of his greatness as an orator.
Dr. King was perhaps the greatest
speech giver of the past century. The depth of his thought, the poetry
of his words and phrases, and the cadence of his speech captivated and
motivated audiences who listened to his powerful messages.
periodically re-read through and listen again to some of these
speeches. Of course, we think primarily of his speech at the March on
Washington in 1963, where he laid out his dream for an equal America.
But perhaps as powerful, but much shorter, was the last speech he gave
the night before his death in Memphis. The emotion he must have felt as
he talked about seeing the promised land of equality, even though he
would not get there.
More than a public speaker, Dr. King was a biblical prophet, whose prophetic voice and message exposed the
oppression of governmental policies and practices that failed to secure
equality and justice for all.
Yet, while the above
mentioned speeches may be commonly known by many people, most would be
surprised to know that one of his most memorable speeches was given at
historic Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year
before his death. The speech was entitled, “Why I Oppose the War in
I had read the text of this sermon many years
ago, but I recently listened to a recording of Dr. King delivering this
address. In that speech, Dr. King called for a break in the silence
that loudly refused to challenge the American government’s policy in
Vietnam through a voice of dissent.
He also drew attention to the
reality that the war had many more victims than the soldiers killed on
both sides, as innocent citizens of Vietnam suffered because of American
military strikes and innocent Americans suffered under the economic
weight of waging a costly war. Moreover, he accused the U.S. government
of maintaining an air of arrogance, believing that it had everything to
teach the world and nothing to learn from it.
listened to some of the poetic statements come from the mouth of this
20th century prophet, I could not help but hear him delivering this
speech today, as if he were still alive.
But what is so prophetic about Dr. King’s speech
about American arrogance and the war in Vietnam is not only that it
foreshadows America’s continued arrogance in how it still relates to the
rest of the world, but that it echoes some of the same sentiments that
Jesus spoke as he proclaimed a kingdom of alternative values in the face
of Roman Imperial power and arrogance.
As Jesus called for a
reordering of values in his own context, so to Dr. King called on America
to embrace the values of peace, justice, and humility.
that sermon at Riverside Church, Dr. King called for “A true revolution
of values” that would “lay hands on the world order and say of war:
"This way of settling differences is not just."
He continued by
proclaiming that, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more
money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is
approaching spiritual death.” “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.”
This is a prophetic voice. This is a voice we need today.
we remember Dr. King's birthday today, and as celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, may we not only
remember his legacy of speaking prophetically the biblical message
against prejudice, injustice, and war, but may we also find our
prophetic voices that echo his message from a sermon he delivered
against the war on February 25, 1967 that called America to execute
“another kind of power”; “a moral power… harnessed to the service of