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‘beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence'

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‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence'

Neglect in the King's Words

"And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak"

‘Beyond Vietnam' was a speech that resonated in so many hearts during such a tragic time. With King's words, people began to find comfort in the terrible situation. In this paper I will seek to determine the scholarly disregard of the rhetorical strategies that King adopted in his speech ‘A Time to Break Silence'. I will also contrast the rhetorical strategies that King adopted in ‘Time' with those he had used successfully in previous speeches during his career as an activist. I will argue that in many important respects ‘A Time to Break Silence' represented a substantial break from the strategies that King had traditionally engaged to win support from one of his primary constituencies - white liberals.

‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence' was delivered by Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1967 at a meeting of concerned clergymen and laity at Riverside Church in New York City, New York (Spence). The fundamental nature of the speech focused on the war that was taking place in Vietnam. The credence of the clergy took the theme of silence as betrayal. The conclusion was reached that they must speak out against the war over opposition that peace and civil rights do not merge. King was there to speak to his fellow Americans who had the responsibility of ending the conflict that had extracted a heavy price on Vietnam and America, not to speak in regards to other nations and problems.

King's expression of strong resistance to American involvement in Vietnam took time to develop and was influenced by the growing radicalization of the civil rights movement. King's thoughts on the war first came to view when he spoke against the war in a speech at Howard University on March 1, 1965. As a typical King speech went, he called for peace and a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. Due to criticism of King's alienation of American actions, he chose the refrain from making any further comments in regards to the war. He believed that if he was to continue to speak on everything that Americans were doing wrong that it would alienate him and the movement. Over time, his desires to alleviate his conscience as well as reassert his reputation as a radical leader, lead to this particular speech which I am examining.

Karl Barth's asserts that the most important element of a sermon is the Word of God and that the pastor should engage in no act that distracts from the focus of the Word. Rhetoric for Barth was an unnecessary element because he believed that the gospel, not the congregation, was essential in the shaping of the sermon. I believe this to be incorrect in terms of Dr. King's sermonic speeches. If it was not for the audiences' reaction, the affect would not have been as massive as it was (Barth). Due to the great belief in the Word and following of Christ, activists' during the time were more susceptible to engaging in sermonic ways. Such as how they

Throughout King's speeches he has aspects of political and sermonic tendencies. According to Bartlett (1995),

A sermon is an oral interpretation of scripture, usually in context of worship… Communities of faith acknowledge other forms of edifying discourse, but a sermon properly understood interprets a sacred text for the life of a community and its members. The interpretation may be direct and explicit or implicit, may begin with the text or the situation but some conversations between contemporary concerns and scripture in included in every sermon. (433).

To continue this, Bartlett points out that due to diversity of the nature and function of scripture, sermons will have a diversity of forms and functions. Within King's speech, he declared that he must share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. He continued his emphasis by stating that in the name of God, we must stop the destruction in Vietnam. Above all, this particular speech can be classified as political with minor aspects of sermonic focus.

‘A Time to Break Silence' allowed for Dr. King to connect two major political issues during the time, civil rights and Vietnam. These two issues had always been viewed as separate and distinct from one another until King chose to speak on the matter and unite the two. In regards to getting involved in the Vietnam War, King specified seven major reasons for brining the war to an end based on moral vision, allowing for a further tie between civil rights and the war. He stated that Vietnam was connected to the struggle he and others have been fighting in America for the poor. He mentioned that the Vietnamese must be looking at Americans as eccentric liberators while contemplating America's madness of the war. Since Vietnam had its independence in 1945 from the French and Japanese, America has supported the French in trying to take back its former colony by funding practically the entire cost of the war for the French. King proclaimed that America was a victim of Western arrogance for rejecting the revolutionary government seeking self-determination in Vietnam (Spence). As a result, our planes were dropping bombs on Vietnamese villages, women and children; poisoning their water; killing their crops; destroying their trees; leaving them homeless; begging for food; and selling their sisters and mothers to our soldiers. In this regard, we must speak for them because they are also our brothers in our struggle. From the first line of the speech, we know that it is going to be more political then sermonic.

Before considering King's strategies in ‘Time' I wish to briefly consider the primary rhetorical strategies he had previously used to win support from white Americans for an end to segregation in the American South. King's most famous speeches are tormented with references from the sacred documents of American civil religion, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – as well as quotes of statements from famous and revered figures in American history such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In addition, King quoted from literary and philosophical sources within the Western tradition; names such as Thoreau, Whitman, Hugo, Plato and Aristotle were used extensively to justify his arguments for civil rights and equality for black Americans (Sharman). In his most famous civil addresses such as ‘I Have a Dream', King used the authority of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to argue that America must grant equal rights for its black citizens. In this and other speeches, King sought to identify black civil rights with the promise contained in these documents.

So I say to you my friends that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (Washington 1986)

King did not, however, to any significant degree, use American ideals or other sources which would be authoritative to the predominantly white audience he was addressing at the church, or through the media coverage of the speech to justify his opposition to the Vietnam War in ‘A Time to Break Silence'. In fact, his use of authorities from all sources, including familiar Christian homilies, was as limited as in any of his speeches. The only quotation from a named authority of American civil religion is the quote from the late President Kennedy justifying the need for the United States to create the economic and social conditions that would ensure peaceful change in the Third World rather than seeking to hold that change back through military intervention (Sharman). Kennedy's quote was used towards the end of the speech along with a quote from an unidentified ‘American official' as evidence that the United States was on the wrong side of the world revolution. (Washington 1986) The placement of quotes already made a litany of criticisms of the U.S policy in Vietnam. Not being justified by direct authority, the impact of the quotes was significantly reduced. If King did not use his traditional rhetorical strategies of identifying his claims for an end to the Vietnam War with the symbols of American civil religion and familiar religious homilies, what strategies did he employ in ‘Time' to support his claim for an end to American involvement in the war? Unlike previous speeches where the dictates of conscience were subordinate to the authority of key symbols in ‘Time', King's primary rhetorical strategy was to justify his desire to speak based on the need to be true to himself and the primary authority he claimed to serve - God. The entire first section of the speech was devoted to King's justification for speaking out against the war all of which was based on the requirements of conscience and the need to represent the will of God. The opening statement leaves us in no doubt as to the motives for King's speech.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no choice… The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines:


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