Public readings of King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ explore its meaning for today
Dr. King speaks out against the war in Vietnam in 1967 | Tobey Massey/AP

OAKLAND, Calif. – On April 4, the 55th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” and the 54th anniversary of his tragic assassination, community members across California gathered to read the speech in public and explore its meaning for today. The events, sponsored by the California Poor People’s Campaign, were part of the mobilization for the PPC’s May 16 assembly in Los Angeles and June 18 Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls.

Fifteen in-person events were held, in locations including Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento State University, Nevada City, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange County, Oceanside, and San Diego. Another ten events were virtual.

In Oakland, readers and supporters gathered in Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of City Hall, under the auspices of the Western States Legal Foundation, a mobilizing partner with the California Poor People’s Campaign.

As she welcomed participants, WSLF Executive Director and United for Peace & Justice co-convener Jacqueline Cabasso cited Dr. King’s call for “a radical revolution of values,” shifting from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, and his warning, “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.”

Pointing to a display on the podium, Cabasso noted that last year, military spending accounted for 46% of the U.S. discretionary budget, and in the recently adopted bipartisan budget proposal for Fiscal 2022, allocation of $782 billion for military spending outranks the $730 billion earmarked for domestic spending.

Military spending is “certainly well over half” and rising, Cabasso said. “I don’t need to tell people here what that money is needed for.”

Former Oakland City Councilmember Wilson Riles Jr., now principal of Oakland’s Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, told the gathering, “We talk about nuclear weapons, we talk about human experiences, we talk about wars going on today, and Dr. King talked about all those things. We have a responsibility … to see the connections between human rights and civil rights.”

Also welcoming readers and supporters to the gathering were WSLF President Phyllis Olin, California Poor People’s Campaign Quad-Chair Nell Myhand, and Patricia St. Onge, founder and partner at Seven Generations Consulting.

Cabasso and Riles joined in presenting introductory remarks she and Sacramento-based California PPC Quad-Chair Faye Wilson Kennedy had prepared together, to be shared at all the California readings.

Quoting the Feb. 25 statement by Poor People’s Campaign Co-chairs Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis that the war launched by Russia against Ukraine “has huge ramifications for the entire world, especially the poor” who suffer the most, the shared remarks repeat their warning that “with the invoking of nuclear weapons, this reckless attack could lead to global disaster,” and point out that U.S. military spending accounts for nearly 40% of the global total.

“Even if the current crisis brings no wider war, the end of hostilities will bring a world much changed. The response from those who rule in all the most powerful states likely will be more arms racing … Throwing more state violence at social and political problems has an unbroken record of failure. It is time to seek a different path.”

Noting that in a state with the world’s fifth largest economy, 51% of Californians are poor or low-income, including 62% of children, 62% of Black people, and 71% of Latinx people, the shared introduction declared, “We honor the full legacy of Dr. King’s work opposing militarism, racism, and poverty – the ‘axis of evil’ in the struggle for peace and justice.”

Some 20 people then joined in reading segments of Dr. King’s speech.

Later in the day, a Sacramento-based virtual gathering led by Faye Wilson Kennedy brought together 23 readers, including high school and college students and members of organizations including Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sacramento Peace Action, Sacramento Black Caucus, and Zapatista Coalition of Sacramento.

After reading Dr. King’s speech, participants shared their thoughts about the significance of the public presentation.

Said one, a high school student, “Hearing it from Dr. King’s voice, and mainly reading it on paper in school – that’s completely different from actually speaking the words. I felt so powerful reading them and hearing them from other people’s mouths.”

And another, “Martin Luther King, within himself, how radical he was as a minister … to me, his speeches and what he stood for are still relevant, no matter how many years or decades later.”

And a third, “A lot of his speeches don’t get presented in their entirety. It’s a little difficult to find on YouTube and different places, but much is in writing … turn it into a play, have different people just like you did today, and become Dr. King, delivering that message to the next generation. A lot of what he said still reverberates today.”

In a phone conversation, Cabasso noted that in recent years several “intersectional” movements have arisen, “which have completely left out the war-and-militarism piece. This is the first one that has fully taken that on board as one of its pillars. I don’t think we can win on any of these pillars alone, they have to be addressed together as the Poor People’s Campaign does. It’s a moral fusion campaign based on common values and vision.”

In another conversation, Kennedy called the day “a perfect opportunity to get folks involved and organizing and engaged with one another and their fellow community members. We couldn’t have asked for a better tool than the speech itself, and the discussion that occurred afterwards, to help us get ready both for June 18 in DC, and the May 16 visit to Los Angeles by Dr. Barber and Rev. Theoharis.”


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.