Nearly 43 years ago to the day, Martin Luther King delivered one of his two most famous speeches: Beyond Vietnam. For the first time, King took a hard-line stance in opposition to the Vietnam War, drawing a connection between the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for peace.
While this speech is remembered as one of the most positive and defining moments of his life, at the time King made it, he was widely condemned, not just by the media and the American mainstream, but by his own colleagues in the civil rights movement.
As a result of that speech, many of King’s closest allies became his harshest critics overnight. The NAACP and members of his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference went so far as to issue a statement countering King’s message, painting him as a rouge, self-serving voice within an otherwise patriotic movement.
The concerns were threefold. One, movement leaders feared that by opposing the war in Vietnam, King would destroy alliances made with then President Johnson and his administration. Two, many believed that while the struggle for civil rights was just, so was the war against Communism that Vietnam was seen as the central front of. Third and most prominent, King was lambasted for speaking in a manner that did not reflect broad consensus within his organization and movement.
In a letter to the New York Times on April 5, 1967, Joseph Lewis Simon, a member of the NAACP and the Urban League wrote, “Dr. King’s simplistic assertions…raise grave doubts in my mind as to his ability to think clearly. DR. KING AND HIS ILK DO NOT SPEAK FOR ME AND MINE.”
For the next year, until his death, King’s popularity plummeted, and he found himself isolated for his decision to speak the truth of his conscience.
For a decade after, many saw King as a pariah within the civil rights movement for having advocated such a bold new stance against war and the U.S. Government, placing the Johnson administration, his former allies in power, square in the middle of his non-violent cross-hairs.
Until his death, King continued to back his words and sentiments both publicly and privately, to the great dismay of MANY within a movement he had sacrificed so much to build.
The bullet that finally took his life, many would still assert, stemmed not just from his work in the civil rights movement, but from that speech he gave at the Riverside Church one year prior to the day.
While I cannot say if within a year a bullet will lay my body to rest, I can imagine how lonely and heart-broken Martin must have felt enduring the harsh criticism of people he loved for having taken what he saw as a righteous and timely stance.
Since my burning of the American Flag in protest of the war and the U.S. Empire, I have been called both a sinner and a saint. Members of my movement, people who I love, have published letters and comments both in support and opposition of what I see as a righteous and timely stance.
Individuals have gone so far as to assert that my non-violent act of resistance to war and empire was indeed an act of war itself. I lament what I see as such a misconstrued analogy, and hope that in time people will see the folly of their condemnations.
The struggle to end war and the struggle to end U.S. Empire is one. As long as the latter exists, the former will be an inevitability as has been demonstrated since our founding. For too long as a movement, we have divided ourselves and diminished our message, for the sake of public image, at the cost of enough blood to stain every flag in history.
This cycle of violence will continue unbroken until a few are willing to stand against the many wielding little more than truth and a determined will to be free. I count myself among the few, but have faith that soon, we’ll be the many. One U.S. flag and my reputation as a leader is a small price to pay for a message of purity that may bring an empire at last to its knees.
I am no Martin Luther King, and shall not claim greatness before any person, but I will embody those examples left to us by greatness past, and will hold true to the cause of speaking truth to power, even if that power is embodied in my peers.
We will know peace within our lifetimes, but first, we must know truth. Truth is not a process of negotiation; it is not a compromise and it is not consensus. Truth comes from within, and with it the power to create new worlds and lay those of old to rest. It also comes with great personal sacrifice on behalf of those who carry its weight.
The truth of our flag and our empire is murder. It’s racism and sexism and theft and confusion. It’s indoctrination of such terrible proportions, that most who have been killed and wounded by its malice are left shrouded by the very symbol under which their lives were destroyed.
Ignoring this truth serves no one but the Emperor, and while he is naked, the masses say clothed. We drape and cover the rancid flesh of his crimes with our flag, the flag I have burnt to reveal his true skin. Now some would call me a man of violence for doing so. I know myself only as a man of peace and love.
I will not strike him down before me, but I will not ignore his nudity any longer. Until we remove the flag for all to see the body of lies that dominates underneath, there will be no justice, there will be no peace, and numbers won’t matter; only truth will set us free.
So I’ll wait beyond Flagatory, and pray for love my soul to keep. Leave me not for the temptation of the deliverance of evil, for ours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, if we would but extend our hearts to grasp it.