Monday, January 16 is MLK Jr. Day – a federal holiday commemorating the birth of activist and civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on January 15th, 1929.
While it’s the lower end of the Upper West Side that houses the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Campus and memorial sculpture, the tip of the UWS plays its own unique role in MLK’s history. On April 4th, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech titled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church at 490 Riverside Drive. The speech, which MLK gave exactly one year before he would be assassinated, was a fiery condemnation of the Vietnam War, which King described as “dishonorable and unjust.” Over the course of his oration, the Reverend Doctor drew a direct line between the Vietnam War and “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
While the war was in its 12th year at the time, MLK had until that point not publicly made such impassioned remarks against it. Immediately after the speech at Riverside Church, King was denounced by other civil rights leaders, disinvited from the White House, and castigated in 168 newspapers, including the New York Times. However, as history has marched forward, the issues for which the speech was then decried have become more apparent to some. While King’s contemporaries pushed back against him for pointing to parallels between racism and poverty in the United States and long-term military occupations abroad, contemporary political discussion has grown to include a more nuanced understanding of intersectional systems of oppression.
The selection of Riverside Church as the site for this speech was very deliberate. Knowing that he would be speaking at a large public march against the Vietnam War later that same month, MLK’s advisors advocated for Beyond Vietnam to take place in a location with a less extreme atmosphere. In this way, Riverside Church served as a more peaceful backdrop for his most incendiary speech; laying the groundwork for further anti-war advocacy.
The Church will be hosting its annual MLK Now celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with events having taken place over the weekend leading up to it. Other ways to celebrate may include acts of community based service, or even listening to this and other of the Reverend Doctor’s speeches.