“MLK: A Call to Conscience” premieres on PBS tonight, March 31, 2010 at 8 p.m. (check local listings). “Tavis Smiley Reports” will delve into one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City.
Smiley will also interview the speech writer Dr. Vincent Harding, who is also a Sojourners contributing editor, about his role in the civil rights movement and the circumstances that resulted in King’s first major anti-war speech.
In the “Riverside speech,” Dr. King decisively and publicly expands his ministry to include opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam. He was vilified for this move by his “friends” as well as his detractors. The Riverside speech, which names the sickness eating the American soul as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” was a watershed moment in American history. A year later, to the day, Dr. King was assassinated.
I was honored to interview civil rights leader and historian Dr. Vincent G. Harding on this topic for Sojourners back in 2006 (see Dreaming America). He said he’d written the speech written over his Christmas vacation in 1966. King made a few minor changes but essentially delivered Harding’s original text.
In tonight’s PBS special, which will also include interviews with Susannah Heschel and Cornel West, Tavis Smiley will examine the context of Dr. King’s words on liberty, responsibility and freedom, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights and an increasingly unpopular war, and examine the implications of his words today, particularly in light of President Obama’s decision to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan.