Reconsidering King’s Dream

a picture revealing that King's dream includes speaking out against American militarism
Guy Nave
Written by Guy Nave

Fifty years after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s time to reconsider the meaning of King’s dream. While King is often praised today for his “I Have A Dream” speech, King’s dream has been grossly misunderstood by many Americans.

While still committed to his dream, King was murdered one year to the day after one of his most politically incisive and divisive speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” The speech actually builds upon King’s dream.

In that speech, King criticized American leadership and called for a “radical revolution of values,” claiming that such a revolution was the only way of defeating the “giant triplets” of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.

While there is much to say about the ongoing prevalence of racism today, and the rampant materialism of American society, the third triplet is one that especially demands highlighting.

Despite a 2018 budget that contains the largest dollar cuts to programs for low- and moderate-income people, Donald Trump recently signed into law a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes a $700 billion budget for the military.

In addition to military spending, the militarization of local police departments in America has become a common practice. The issue of militarized policing rose to national attention during the 2014 Ferguson protests.

This militarization mentality is one of the things King condemned over fifty years ago. While Americans today will often praise King’s dream, few will highlight the critiques found in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

In that speech, King spoke of the evisceration of social programs designed to help Americans, while millions of dollars were being spent on militarization. King described America as a “society gone mad on war.”

The media responded harshly to King’s speech. Time magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” An editorial in the April 6, 1967, Washington Post said King “has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies … and … an even graver injury to himself.”

The Post continued, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”

The Post revealed through its use of the phrase “his people,” an utter failure to understand King’s universalist vision–King’s dream.

In response to critics who asked, “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? …Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?”, King replied,

…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. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

It would seem the Post’s designation, “his people,” was a reference to African Americans. King, however, in this speech forcefully articulated what he had demonstrated throughout his public life: a commitment to the well-being of all people—“his people.”

King asserted, “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy….” This is the sentiment that lies at the heart of King’s dream.

On April 4, 1968, before being assassinated on the balcony outside his hotel room, King called his mother to give her the title of a new sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.” While he never delivered that sermon, King warned that “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.

In contrast to the claim made by the Washington Post one year earlier, King had in no way “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”

We are most useful to our cause, to our country, and to our people when we’re courageous enough to speak truth to power on behalf of our cause, our country, and our people.

For nearly two decades, America has been engaged in endless wars against so-called “enemies.” The costs—human, economic, and socio-political—of these wars have far exceeded the cost of virtually all previous wars. King recognized that the costs of war weren’t just economic for America; the costs included the poisoning of America’s soul.

This poisoning of the soul creates a callousness toward continuous killing and torture. In September 2017, Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) invited — and then disinvited — Chelsea Manning to serve as a visiting fellow. Manning, a former soldier in the U.S. Army, leaked secret documents showing that the United States had killed far more people in Iraq than the government had admitted publicly, that United States soldiers turned a blind eye to torture, and that the United States covered up the killing of civilians by American soldiers.

While American’s praise King’s dream and his commitment to nonviolence, the poisoning of America’s soul contributes to an inability to understand King’s dream or to see nonviolence as a viable alternative to war.

Many pro-war national security “experts” argue: “I’d pay closer attention to critics of drone strikes if they explained their recommended alternative.”

The commonly heard defense of drone assaults: I support drones – despite how they constantly kill innocent adults and children – because the alternative, “boots on the ground,” is worse, reveals an inability to conceive of an alternative that does not involve causing the death of others.

Critiquing American involvement in Vietnam, King said, “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”

King’s call for non-violent visionary leadership was a central component of King’s dream and is important for Americans to hear today:

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…. War is not the answer…. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness.

While the current U.S. president promotes an “America first” strategy that stresses national loyalties over global loyalties and promotes the total annihilation of America’s enemies, King’s revolution of values promotes peace and global human loyalties:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. 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…. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.

In this age of endless war, let us celebrate King’s dream by pursuing his radical revolution of values. Anyone claiming to honor King’s dream without challenging the “giant triplets”—all of them—is doing nothing more than paying lip service to King’s dream.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.