Child Watch® Column:
A Time to Break Silence

Release Date: March 31, 2017

Marian Wright Edelman

Fifty years ago on April 4, 1967, our prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It was his first major public antiwar speech and a powerful warning that a rise in racial hatred, militarism and violence could destroy America.

In his essay “The Land Beyond,” originally published in Sojourners magazine in 1983, Dr. Vincent Harding, the brilliant historian and theologian and close King friend who helped draft the speech, wrote: “Even now it would be tempting to take this cry from the heart of a driven, searching, magnificent brother and file it away as a document for museums and other honorable places. But neither the fiery signals rising from some of our latest potential Vietnams in Central America, South Africa, or the Middle East, nor the mounting anguish of the betrayed and disinherited of our own land will allow us to escape the unresolved issues of the past or avoid the costly and accurate vision of our comrade in the faith. The speech not only requires us to struggle once more with the meaning of King, but it also presses us to wrestle as he did, with all of the tangled, bloody, and glorious meaning of our nation (and ourselves), its purposes (and our own), its direction (and our own), its hope (and our own).” Dr. Harding was writing on the speech’s fifteenth anniversary — yet his instructions for how we should reread the speech are even more searing today on its fiftieth.

Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War specifically but also arguing that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” and that it was time for our nation to undergo “a radical revolution of values”: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered . . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” President Trump’s very first budget blueprint, which proposes an increase in defense spending for 2018 of $54 billion (a 10 percent increase) with $54 billion in cuts to programs serving the poor and vulnerable and addressing basic needs and other non-defense discretionary spending to pay for it, plainly shows Dr. King’s message is not being heard or heeded.

Just as starkly and presciently, Dr. King went on to say the revolution in our national values must reject nationalism and hate: “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 and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man . . . We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”

Headlines around the world show many nations are teetering on the precipice of this path right now — including our own. So how far down will we let our leaders go without speaking and standing up to intolerance? Dr. King reminded: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” “We must move past indecision to action . . . If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

Exactly one year after “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In the decades since, our nation has continued to wrestle mightily with our purpose, direction, and sense of justice. In 2017 we are at a very dangerous crossroads. I hope a critical mass of us will, like Dr. King, stand up and act saying: We have come too far to continue being dragged down those dark and shameful corridors. We must turn around before it is too late. So let us make a mighty noise until our leaders with tin ears hear and reverse course.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by kdixie at: April 10, 2017
Our world must take heed to what Dr. King is saying. Right now, the world is in trouble. Hatred, love of money, lack of compassion is wihat exists in the masses. There are some good people in the world but not ENOUGH. Our thought process, values, respect for others must all be on one accord yet WHEN has that ever happened? We must PRAY. Our world is crying out for help and led by sheer evil in the strongest places that lead and controls things in our world. Only prayer, fasting and PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER can make this world a better place.

Submitted by Pat at: April 5, 2017
We need to speak out against hate and revenge. There's no peace down that road!!! Pat

Submitted by Debra at: April 5, 2017
The true essences are storage in what we do is right.Let Dr. King be a reminder of our conscious.

Submitted by Deejay at: April 5, 2017
I truly believe that we as people has to come to Christ to bring comfort to our minds and souls as we lived through these dark days. People that have value and morals has to be the light that shines in a dark world.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 4, 2017
good article1!!! trump's hatred of everyone(but himself) is very contagious. it is spreading like wILDFIRE

Submitted by j baus at: April 4, 2017
Always inspiring. champion for children. I remember the Stand for Children march earlly in Marian's career in fighting for kids.

Submitted by Janie at: April 3, 2017
I know about cmplacency & "wringing of hands" over the status of suffering right here in the supposed "land of the free." This to me is the call to action that I can no longer just talk about then let others act. It is my time and I hope others as well, to stand up with a backbone of courage and formulate a plan and get started.

Submitted by Shosho at: April 1, 2017
Yes, we must all unite to support integrity, kindness, compassion, and justice and to teach these virtues to our children. Wage peace!

Submitted by MAC at: March 31, 2017
It continues to astound me, as someone who has spent my life working with children, that we are the richest nation in the world, and give the least attention to our children in terms of health, welfare and education. And the people charged with looking after our children do not, in many cases, make a living wage. Shame on us.

Submitted by moseleys at: March 31, 2017
Many neglect to acknowledge that Dr. King spoke out against militarism, rampant materialism, and racism. Excellent insights and so timely in the light of the build-up of the military budget.

Submitted by Jjohnsonw at: March 31, 2017
I am devastated by this budget proposal. How is this possible?

Submitted by tadpole at: March 31, 2017
I am with can I help

Submitted by Katharine Cahn at: March 31, 2017
Thank you so much for this reminder of the moral imperatives of our time. I needed it today.

Submitted by Laokan at: March 31, 2017
I was doing research and teaching in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan during that time. Many people living in those places thought it was necessary to use any means, including war, to stop the aggression of the Communists. I found myself in genuine conflict about the war. I also remember how sad we were to hear about the tragic death of Dr. King.

Submitted by CS at: March 31, 2017
Truth always stands the test of time.In "the fierce urgency of now" we can only hope the possibility of too late will not stop the call to action and voice and what is right. I fear the ship Planet Earth (life as we know it) is going down, but if it does so in glory and not without a fight, we may rest in peace.

Submitted by DeBora Mapp, EdD at: March 31, 2017
You are right - this speech should not be stored since it's message is still needed today on many levels. As cities grapple with violence involving youth and rising mental illnesses, we know that precursors and outcomes that bring about "war" don't occur away from national borders but also within our nation - beginning with families. We need a renewed sense of urgency in supporting families as the smallest social units in society and important to its functioning. Well-being, wellness and positive relationships need to be modeled in homes with learning as a natural part of development so our children become more capable and hopeful for their futures. Yes, it takes a village, and we need to begin being our children's best teachers for a better world within all our families which make up the village. Thank you, Mrs. Edelman, for your continued words of wisdom! Peace!