You could hear the deep sadness in the preacher’s voice as he named “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” With those words, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a scathing indictment of America’s war in Vietnam. It was April 4, 1967.
His antiwar sermon seemed to signal a new high tide of opposition to a brutal set of American policies in Southeast Asia. Just 11 days later, unexpectedly large crowds would come out in New York and San Francisco for the first truly massive antiwar rallies. Back then, a protest of at least a quarter of a million seemed “yuge.”
King signaled another turning point by concluding his speech with “something even more disturbing”—something that would deeply disturb the developing antiwar movement as well. “The war in Vietnam,” he said, “is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”
Many of those who gathered at antiwar rallies days later were already beginning to suspect the same thing. Even if they could actually force their government to end its war in Vietnam, they would be healing only a symptom of a far more profound illness. With that realization came a shift in consciousness, the clearest sign of which could be found in the sizable contingent of counterculture hippies who began joining those protests. While antiwar radicals were challenging the unjust political and military policies of their government, the counterculturists were focused on something bigger: trying to revolutionize the whole fabric of American society.
Why recall this history exactly 50 years later, in the age of Donald Trump? Curiously enough, King offered at least a partial answer to that question in his 1967 warning about the deeper malady. “If we ignore this sobering reality,” he said, “we will find ourselves…marching… and attending rallies without end.” The alternative? “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
Like many of my generation, I feel as if, in lieu of that radical revolution, I have indeed been marching and attending rallies for the last half-century, even if there were also long fallow periods of inactivity. (In those quiet times, of course, there was always organizing and activism going on behind the scenes, preparing for the next wave of marches and demonstrations in response to the next set of obvious outrages.)
If the arc of history bends toward justice, as King claimed, it’s been a strange journey, a bizarre twisting and turning as if we were all on some crazed roller-coaster ride.