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85 MIN READ TIME

Exceptional Victims

EXACTLY A YEAR before he was murdered, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave one of the greatest speeches of his life, a piercing critique of the war in Vietnam. Two thousand people jammed into New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, to hear King shred the historical, political, and moral claims that U.S. leaders had invoked since the end of World War II to justify their counterrevolutionary foreign policy. The United States had not supported Vietnamese independence and democracy, King argued, but had repeatedly opposed it; the United States had not defended the people of South Vietnam from external communist aggression, but was itself the foreign aggressor—burning and bombing villages, forcing peasants off their ancestral land, and killing, by then, as many as one million Vietnamese. “We are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure,” King said, “while we create a hell for the poor.”

The war was an “enemy of the poor” at home as well. Not only were poor black and white boys sent “to kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools,” but the vast expense required to obliterate an impoverished, nonwhite nation 8,000 miles away eviscerated the domestic social programs that had promised to narrow economic and racial inequalities at home. The military draft, for instance, offered deferments and exemptions that favored the privileged while programs such as Project 100,000 enlisted men from “the subterranean poor”—men so badly educated they would once have been rejected for military service. Project 100,000 was touted as a program of social uplift, but in reality, it sent poor men to the front lines as cannon fodder, further proving King’s point that the promises of the Great Society were “shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

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