MLK’s Warning of America’s Spiritual Death

From the Archive: A year before his death, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. broke with many political allies by warning that the Vietnam War was inflicting a “spiritual death” on America, casting King outside mainstream opinion circles which called his advice naive and irresponsible, as Gary G. Kohls recalled in 2014.

By Gary G. Kohls (Originally published on Jan. 19, 2014)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Riverside Church speech was titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” It was delivered exactly one year before his April, 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis. In the speech, King declared, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The people who heard that speech recognized it as one of the most powerful speeches ever given articulating the immorality of the Vietnam War and its destructive impact on social progress in the United States. In explaining his decision to follow his conscience and speak out against U.S. militarism, King said:

Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, DC.

Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, DC.

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

But King went farther, diagnosing the broader disease of militarism and violence that was endangering the soul of the United States. King said, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

Poisoning America’s Soul

King knew very well that the disease of violence was killing off more than social progress in America. Violence was sickening the nation’s soul as well. He added “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’.” King urged his fellow citizens to take up the causes of the world’s oppressed, rather than taking the side of the oppressors. He said:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

“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. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world a world that borders on our doors.

“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.”

King pointed to an alternate path into the future: “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?”

Signing His Own Death Warrant

By denouncing so forcefully the war crimes that the U.S. military was committing daily in the killing fields of Vietnam, some of King’s followers understood that he had just signed his own death warrant. But King, being a person of conscience, was compelled to express his deep sense of moral outrage over the horrific maiming, suffering and dying of millions of innocent Vietnamese civilians in that unjust war that afflicted mostly unarmed women and children and that was going to leave behind lethal poisons in the soil, water and unborn babies that would last for generations.

He knew that non-combatants are always the major victims of modern warfare, especially wars that indiscriminately used highly lethal weapons that rained down from the air, especially the U.S. Air Force’s favorite weapon, napalm, the flaming, jellied gasoline that burned the flesh off of whatever part of the burning adult or child it splashed onto.

King also connected the racist acts (of American soldiers joyfully killing dispensable non-white “gooks” and “slants”, often shooting at “anything that moves”) on the battlefields of Southeast Asia to the oppression, impoverishment, imprisoning and lynching of dispensable, deprived non-white “niggers” in America.

King saw the connections between the violence of racism and the violence of poverty. He saw that the withholding of economic and educational opportunities came from the fear of “the other” and the perceived need to protect the white culture’s wealth and privilege with violence if necessary.

King knew, too, that fortunes are made in every war, and the war in Vietnam was no exception. In his speeches, he talked about that unwelcome reality that the ruling class preferred not be discussed. That meant his well-attended Riverside Church speech threatened not only the powerful interests already arrayed against his civil rights struggle but also the interests of the war profiteers and the national security establishment.

War is Good Business

The longer the Vietnam War lasted, the more the weapons manufacturers thrived. With their huge profits, there was a strong incentive for these financial elites to continue the carnage. And therefore the Wall Street war profiteers financed, out of their ill-gotten gains, battalions of industry lobbyists and pro-military propagandists who descended upon Washington, DC, and the Pentagon to claim even more tax dollars for weapons research, development and manufacture.

With that funding secured, armies of desperate jobs-seekers were hired to work in thousands of weapons factories that were strategically placed in congressional districts almost everywhere, with weapons research grants likewise being awarded to virtually every university in the nation. Thus, weapons-manufacturing and R&D soon became vitally important for almost every legislator’s home district economy as well as for the household budgets of millions of American voters who indirectly benefitted from the U.S. military’s killing, maiming, displacement, starvation and suffering of non-white people in war zones.

King’s anti-war stance was based on his Christianity and on the ethics and life of Jesus, but it was also based on his standing as a revered international peace and justice icon. Those factors made him a dangerous threat to the military/industrial/congressional/security complex.

The powerful forces that were working hard to discredit King had already infiltrated the civil rights movement. Their efforts, cunningly led by the proto-fascist and racist J. Edgar Hoover and his obedient FBI, accelerated after the Riverside speech. The FBI ramped up the smear campaigns against King. Eventually he was “neutralized” with a bullet to the head. [The case for believing that King’s murder was not simply the act of lone gunman James Earl Ray is laid out in many studies, including attorney William F. Pepper’s An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.]

King’s Prophetic Vision

Now, almost five decades after his anti-war speech (which was widely kept from the public), it is clear how prophetic King’s observations were. America is indeed losing its soul. Violence, racism, militarism and economic oppression are still American epidemics.

Both upper- and middle-class investors of get-rich-quick schemes in America have succumbed to predatory lenders, cannibalistic corporate mergers and acquisitions, psychopathic multinational corporate schemers, corrupt crony capitalists, and the rapist/exploiters of the land and water by extractive industries all schemes that will eventually burst as part of predictable economic bubbles.

Those busted bubbles regularly wipe out investors (except for the large, deep-pocketed “insiders” who, usually being forewarned, will have sold their holdings just in time, before the publicly revealed “bust”), leaving the taxpayers to bail out the financial messes that were created by the so-called “invisible hand of the market” but are really caused by the cunning work of corporate gamblers.

King was trying to warn us not just about the oncoming epidemic of violence toward victims at home but also about the tens of millions of people around the world who were and are still being victimized by U.S. military misadventures. King was also warning us about the multinational corporate war profiteers whose interests are facilitated and protected by the U.S. military whether they are operating in Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

The Pentagon budget averages well over $700 billion per year, including wars that are often illegal and unconstitutional. That amounts to $2 billion per day with no visible return on investment, except for the military contractors, the oil industries and Wall Street financiers.

Vast sums also are needed to address the physical and mental health costs needed for the palliative care for the permanently maimed and psychologically-traumatized veterans. Hundreds of millions of dollars more are spent paying down the interest payments on past military debts.

All those potentially bankrupting costs represent money that will never be available for programs of social uplift like combatting racism, poverty and hunger, or paying for affordable housing/healthcare, universal education or meaningful job creation. Can anyone else hear a demonic laugh reverberating down Wall Street?

King was warning America about its oncoming spiritual death if it didn’t convert itself away from military violence. But most observers of the U.S. see America still worshipping at the altars of the Gods of War and Greed. Our children may be doomed.

The vast majority of American Christian churches (whether fundamentalist, conservative, moderate or liberal, with very few exceptions) have failed King’s vision, despite the lip service they sometimes give to King on MLK Day. Churches whose members were brought up on the Myth of American Exceptionalism (and the myth of being “God’s chosen people”) consistently refuse to take a stand against the satanic nature of war.

Past the Point of No Return?

If America is to avert future financial and military catastrophes, King’s central warnings about the “triple evils” of militarism, racism and economic oppression must be heeded. That means a retreat from worldwide network of budget-busting military bases. And, if America wants to shed the justified label of “Rogue Nation,” the covert killing operations of its secret black ops mercenary military units all around the world must be stopped, as should the infamous extrajudicial assassinations by America’s unmanned drones.

If King’s 47-year-old warning continues to be ignored, America’s future is bleak. The future holds the dark seeds of economic chaos, hyperinflation, unendurable poverty, increasing racial/minority hostility, worsening malnutrition, armed rebellion, street fighting, and perhaps, ultimately, institution of a reactionary totalitarian/surveillance police state in order to control citizen protests and quell rebellions.

In 1967, many Americans considered King hopeful vision for a better future as irrational idealism. He was told that the task was too great, the obstacles were too imposing, and there was no will for even the churches to reverse their age-old, conservative pseudo-patriotism and society’s institutional racism. I suspect that many of the churches that called King a communist and therefore ignored him back then wish that they could turn back the clock and give King’s (and Jesus’s) path a try.

King finished his speech with these challenges: “War is not the answer. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world a world that borders on our doors. 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.”

And he had these sobering words for the churches that are immersed in a polytheistic culture (the worship of multiple gods, including the gods of war and mammon) and thus are tempted to quietly ally themselves with those gods rather than the God of Love that King was devoted to:

“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’”

Today, the task is even tougher, the obstacles much more imposing, but the path that King outlined remains. MLK Day should be a good time to start seriously reconsidering King’s radical message.

Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who writes about peace, justice, militarism, mental health and religious issues. 

14 comments for “MLK’s Warning of America’s Spiritual Death

  1. Abe
    January 18, 2016 at 14:53

    GLEN FORD: If we’re going to describe King, I think he’s aptly described as a left social democrat […] he did not think of himself as a nationalist. But he did refer to himself as a socialist. His staff always discouraged him from using that word.

    He differed from the social democrats that we know today in that he opposed U.S. imperialism, because he was a man of peace.


    MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle upon Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.


    FORD: So he was an antiwar activist before 1967, when he made the formal break with his speech at Riverside Church and broke with the president, with whom the movement that Dr. King was a leader in had made a kind of alliance, the president who had introduced and then signed these civil rights bills. Martin Luther King felt that he had to break with this sometimes ally because of the Vietnam War, and not just because of the immorality of the war, but because of the way militarism affects domestic policy as well.

    So, yeah, he was a left social democrat, a person who believed that politics should not be confined to the ballot box. He resisted all the entreaties from folks on the left who wanted him to run for office, because he saw politics as setting people in motion, and a ballot box is only one destination.

    […] he talked about the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.


    KING: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. 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.


    FORD: And by extreme materialism, I think he was talking about the rule of the rich. And he got pretty explicit in terms of the rule of the masses of people by one moneyed class of people. He advocated back in 1967 a guaranteed national minimum income. He certainly preached a kind ofsocial gospel. And I also believe that politically we should call him a socialist, yes. He called himself that.

    The Black Elite and the Legacy of Martin Luther King

    Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.

  2. Robert
    January 18, 2016 at 14:22

    Come on, King’s argument was made for the benefit of his people NOT for the benefit of Americas soul.

      • J'hon Doe II
        January 19, 2016 at 10:03

        Strange Fruit

        Southern trees bear a strange fruit
        Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
        Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
        Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

        Pastoral scene of the gallant South
        The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
        Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
        Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

        Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
        For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
        For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
        Here is a strange and bitter crop

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 19, 2016 at 10:27

      Robert >> “Come on, King’s argument was made for the benefit of his “people NOT for the benefit of Americas soul.

      King was killed not just because he was a civil rights activist, but because he was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, which would have involved nonviolent disruption of business as usual in Washington on behalf of all of the nation’s poor, whatever their colour. This made the 1% uncomfortable.

      King was also killed because he had passionately criticized his country’s pursuance of the Vietnam War—his major denunciation of that war at Riverside Church in New York City had taken place one year to the day before he was killed. The eloquent and uncompromising talk had made everyone from President Johnson to the U.S. military and intelligence communities uncomfortable.

  3. Abe
    January 18, 2016 at 14:16

    In 1948 George Kennan, architect of US Cold War Soviet “Containment” policy, noted in an internal US State Department memo the essence of the mentality of those special interests around the brothers Rockefeller and the New York Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), who were busy then defining that emerging American informal empire. Kennan’s memo outlined the postwar agenda of the US power establishment very succinctly:

    “…[W]e have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

    Kennan outlined the real nature of post-war US policies. Kennan was coldly honest and realistic about the true postwar goal of the US establishment. It was US domination of the world, or at least as much of it as it could seize and hold onto in 1948. That was the CFR’s proposed Grand Area.

    Since 1945 the United States has formally been involved as combatant in twenty two wars, major and minor, from Korea to Vietnam, from Grenada and Panama to Syria and Libya, wars all to grab and hold that global empire.

    Now, its domestic economy a hollowed-out shell, its transportation infrastructure in horrendous decline, its skilled labor force increasingly non-existent, its university engineering and science students mostly from abroad–mainly China and India–the United States of America is in the throes of a terminal decline, a decline caused by no one but her own people who tolerated the looting and destruction of a once-beautiful nation by a greedy, power-addicted cabal of bad people with names like Rockefeller, Gates, Russell, DuPont, Buffett and others whose names are hardly known to the broad public.

    The crisis that the USA faces today as World Hegemon is the fact the nation has become bankrupt, morally, spiritually, intellectually and economically

    Travails of a Bankrupt Hegemon
    By F. William Engdahl

  4. Abbybwood
    January 18, 2016 at 13:39

    I saw a cartoon today with MLK, Jr. saying, “I have a dream,” and Obama saying, “I have drones.”

  5. J'hon Doe II
    January 18, 2016 at 13:22

    The overwhelming evidence of US government complicity found valid by the jury includes:

    US 111th Military Intelligence Group were at Dr. King’s location during the assassination.
    20th Special Forces Group had an 8-man sniper team at the assassination location on that day.
    Usual Memphis Police special body guards were advised they “weren’t needed” on the day of the assassination.
    Regular and constant police protection for Dr. King was removed from protecting Dr. King an hour before the assassination.
    Military Intelligence set-up photographers on the roof of a fire station with clear view to Dr. King’s balcony.

    Dr. King’s room was changed from a secure 1st-floor room to an exposed balcony room.
    Memphis police ordered the scene where multiple witnesses reported as the source of shooting cut down of their bushes that would have hid a sniper.
    Along with sanitizing a crime scene, police abandoned investigative procedure to interview witnesses who lived by the scene of the shooting.
    The rifle Mr. Ray delivered was not matched to the bullet that killed Dr. King, and was not sighted to accurately shoot.

    The US government also denied the King family’s requests for independent investigation of the assassination, despite the overwhelming evidence produced at the 1999 civil trial. Dr. King’s wife, Coretta, spent more than twice the number of years she was married to Martin working to get a criminal trial for her husband’s assassination.

    The King family believes the government’s motivation to murder Dr. King was to prevent his imminent camp-in/Occupy at Washington, D.C. until the Vietnam War was ended and those resources directed to end poverty and invest in US hard and soft infrastructure.

    US corporate media did not cover the civil trial, interview the King family, and textbooks omit this information. This is crucial evidence of a controlled corporate media rejecting coverage of a game-changing story. Journalist and author, James Douglass:

    Because of journalistic neglect scarcely anyone else in this land of ours even knows what went on in it.
    See Also–

    • Bob Van Noy
      January 18, 2016 at 15:33

      So true J’hon Doe II. Recently I have become aware of William Francis Pepper whom Martin Luther King contacted about an article Mr. Pepper had written about Vietnam. They became friends, and few people realize that the King Family hired Mr. Pepper to represent them in a “Wrongful Death Lawsuit” against Loyd Jowers whom they contended had actually fired the shot that killed Dr. King. They Won that suit…

      More links here:

      Interestingly, Mr. Pepper recently had a brief in front of the California 9th, Circuit for reconsideration of the reopening of the Sirhan case in the death of Robert Kennedy, which they refused. But there certainly appear to be strong links to all of the political deaths in the 1960’s.

    • Sojourner Truth
      January 18, 2016 at 21:14

      An interesting consideration with regard to King’s assassination concerns the investigative pathways between the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and MLK’s killing.

      One of the emblematic horrors of the civil rights struggle, the bombing murders of four young African-American girls is seldom mentioned in the context of King’s death.


      • Bob Van Noy
        January 18, 2016 at 21:41

        Thank you for the link Sojourner Truth, I’ll follow it up…

  6. Zachary Smith
    January 18, 2016 at 12:07

    King’s anti-war stance was based on his Christianity and on the ethics and life of Jesus, but it was also based on his standing as a revered international peace and justice icon.

    It would be difficult for me to believe that MLK’s ‘anti-war stance’ extended to the US Civil War.

    • John
      January 18, 2016 at 16:17

      King was not alive during the Civil War, but, had he been, he may have been on the side of the Abolitionist and Anti-war Lysander Spooner. Many of their ideas dovetail, and King would have been able to see the veracity of Spooner’s predictions of the aftermath of the Civil War come to fruition.

      • Zachary Smith
        January 18, 2016 at 18:54

        I’d never heard of Lysander Spooner until reading your post. A quick look-up made me doubt if MLK would have wanted anything to do with him. That is, unless MLK had some Libertarian notions nobody has mentioned.

        Spooner was an abolitionist – after a fashion, writing To the Non-Slaveholders of the South: A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery (1858). (His wiki says he was also a supporter of John Brown.)

        PAS.17 We specially advise the flogging of individual Slave-holders. This is a case where the medical principle, that like cures like, will certainly succeed. Give the Slave-holders, then, a taste of their own whips. Spare their lives, but not their backs. The arrogance they have acquired by the use of the lash upon others, will be soon taken out of them, when the same scourge shall be applied to themselves. A band of ten or twenty determined negroes, well armed, having their rendezvous in the forests, coming out upon the plantations by day or night, seizing individual Slaveholders, stripping them and flogging them soundly, in the presence of their own Slaves, would soon abolish Slavery over a large district.
        PAS.18 These bands could also do a good work by kidnapping individual Slaveholders, taking them into the forest, and holding them as hostages for the good behavior of the whites remaining on the plantations; compelling them also to execute deeds of emancipation, and conveyances of their property, to their slaves. These contracts could probably never afterward be successfully disavowed on the ground of duress (especially after new governments, favorable to liberty, should be established) inasmuch as such contracts would be nothing more than justice; and men may rightfully be coerced to do justice. Such contracts would be intrinsically as valid as the treaties by which conquered nations make satisfaction for the injustice which caused the war.
        PAS.19 The more bold and resolute Slaves should be encouraged to form themselves into bands, build forts in the forests, and by such means as may be in there collect arms, stores, horses, every thing that will enable them to sustain themselves, and carry on their warfare upon the slave-holders.
        PAS.20 Another important measure on the part of the Slaves will be to disarm their masters, so far as that is practicable, by seizing and concealing their weapons whenever opportunity offers. They should also kill all slave-hunting dogs, and the owners too, if that should prove necessary.

        But when war actually came, he turned against it because it wasn’t designated as a war to abolish slavery! A war on slavery dressed up as a War For The Union just wasn’t acceptable.

        IMO the guy was a nut who was very big on “theory” as opposed to practical activities. No doubt this is why the modern Libertarians fawn on him.

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