MLK Vietnam speech opens discussion on campus civility

For 60 seconds after listening to a Youtube audio clip of Martin Luther King’s “A Time to Break the Silence,” a speech written in protest to the war in Vietnam in 1967, Quigley Hall was at peace: no one fondled coffee cups. No one shuffled papers. One girl scratched an itch on her nose.

And then began discussion with King’s words reverberating in the minds of those who, 44 years after the speech was first given, still find power from his form of peaceful resistance.

“The sincerity of the room was really refreshing,” said Zach Restelli, ’14. “We weren’t just reading and praising him [Dr. King], but it led us in a direction of constructive conversation instead of just a review of what he did, which it could have easily been.”

During the morning’s discussion, audience members were asked to cite differences they noticed between King’s speech against the US involvement in Vietnam, and his more iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, as it came to be known (though the name of the original speech was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”).

Allegheny’s Chief Diversity Officer, Lawrence Potter, along with Residence Life director, Kazi Joshua, facilitated the discussion.

“The goal was to clearly show a different side of Dr. King and to help people understand that King was a person who had to deal internally with a number of struggles,” Potter said.

Students and faculty noted more pragmatism in King’s Vietnam speech versus the more uplifting, idyllic visions in the speech surrounding King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Attendees also noted a sadness in King’s Vietnam speech that contrasted the hopefulness of his more famously quoted speech.

Even those students not in attendance that morning expressed fears that King’s legacy has been oversimplified through his activism and, ultimately, through his martyr-like assassination.

“I think he [King] is misrepresented,” said Andrew Copenhaver, ’13. “A lot of people forget that he was a Republican, he was a very Christian man before he was a very proactive and political man, and I think sometimes that gets lost in his legacy.”

While Black History Month annually invites Americans to examine the role of race in shaping our cultural present and future, the choice of reading King’s Vietnam speech highlighted not just King’s efforts in the Civil Rights Movement (most notably in his early mobilization of the Montgomery Bus boycott, following Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her seat), but of wider social injustices, like class privilege.

“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” said Dr. King, calling attention to the irony in America’s social landscape.

“This particular speech demonstrates Dr. King’s ability to combine international issues as well as national issues,” Potter said, “and rarely do you find that in a host of his speeches. We really wanted to look at this from both an international perspective as well as a national perspective.”

Students and faculty were invited to look introspectively and question themselves as leaders.

“Liberal young adults such as myself see standing up to power in peaceful ways as being sort of a very cool, interesting thing that we like to think that we could do but rarely ever accomplish,” Copenhaver said.

In his speech, Dr. King quoted a statement put out by the Clergy of Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, saying that, “a time comes when silence becomes betrayal.”

His message then became the focus of discussion for action on Allegheny’s own campus.

Moralistic questions were raised in the hour long discussion: does one have the obligation to speak out against racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of discrimination as it is witnessed.

And, in keeping with recent focuses on Allegheny’s campus about civility, how does one, charged with the obligation to stop hate, do so with civility and tact?

“Everyone that was there—whether they had to go for a class or went on their own—had something to say,” Restelli said. “The talk gave us a way to talk about events around campus that don’t appear in the newspaper.”