Manhattan’s Riverside Church celebrates 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech

Fifty years ago Tuesday, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of his most famous — and controversial — speeches at Manhattan’s Riverside Church.


“Beyond Vietnam” sharply denounced the American war in Vietnam — and set off a wave of reaction that culminated a year later with King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., while helping striking sanitation workers.

This Tuesday, Riverside Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech with an event featuring author Michelle Alexander and civil rights activist Ruby Sales.

Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, senior minister at Riverside, said it was remarkable to honor the 50th anniversary of King’s speech “under an administration endorsed by white supremacists.”

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1199 SEIU head George Gresham, who was in junior high school when King gave the speech, said it resonated with him because he remembered older cousins coming home from Vietnam in wooden coffins.

“I wasn’t nearly as politically involved then as I am now, but I remember being angry about the Vietnam War,” he said.


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King once declared 1199 SEIU his favorite union — and Gresham said his labor organization embraces that label still today.

“I often ask myself, if Dr. King were still alive today, would we still be his favorite union and I like to think we would be,” he said.

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Gresham praised King for having the courage to speak in opposition to Vietnam and American militarism at a time when such views were dangerous.

“The lesson for us to learn is that you must always be willing to stand up and take certain positions even when they’re not popular,” he said.

“There’s great potential for our country to go backwards if organizations like 1199 don’t continue to speak up when we see the tide going against working people,” Gresham concluded.

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