Panelists analyze King’s Vietnam speech

By Ruthie Kott

Members of the University and Hyde Park communities congregated in Swift Lecture Hall Wednesday night to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 4, 1967 sermon at the Riverside Church on the Vietnam War. The panel discussion, sponsored by the Office of Minority Student Affairs, was the second event in the week-long celebration of King’s birth and was moderated by Divinity School Dean Rick Rosengarten.

The first panelist, Divinity School Professor W. Clark Gilpin, aimed to take the audience through King’s address and “let its power work.” Gilpin broke the speech into two parts: In the first section, King discusses the unity of civil rights in the U.S. and peace. In the second, he shifts the frame of reference from the the plight of black America to the situation in Vietnam, focusing on how “cultural knowledge” and “empathy” are necessary before judgments can be made, Gilpin said.

Dwight Hopkins, a Divinity School theologian, compared King’s early work for the civil rights movement to his radical activism in the final years of his life. Hopkins explained that King realized that his duty as a minister was to support the poor—both black and white—and that King’s hopes for peace and justice started with “impacting structural power” and “gaining control” for those who were marginalized.

Building on the ideas presented by the first two panelists, Barbara Ransby, a historian and professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois–Chicago, discussed selective memory when it comes to Martin Luther King. People throw around his words, like “color blind,” Ransby asserted, and take them out of context “to undermine his work.” Ransby urged listeners to apply King’s moral challenge about war and empire-building to the situation in Iraq. “King’s words should be ringing loudly in our ears,” she said.

Martin Luther King, Jr. community events continue throughout the weekend, culminating in a Memorial Service and keynote speech by Julian Bond, Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in Rockefeller Chapel at 12 p.m. on Monday.