“A time to break silence”: Dr. King on the Vietnam war, and President Carter on America’s human rights violations (revised June 28)

“And I’ve long since learned that to be a follower (of) Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it–bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam,” Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967.

There is a powerful connection between the April, 1967 sermons on Vietnam of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Jimmy Carter’s recent New York Times op-ed piece on American human rights violations, and the policies currently being carried out by President Barack Obama. It is important to understand this connection, details of which are set forth below.

I. Jimmy Carter’s Op-Ed in the New York Times, Criticizing America’s Violations of Human Rights

Ex-president Jimmy Carter published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on June 24, in which he hashly criticized President Obama, and also former president Bush, for “the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade, (which) has been a dramatic change from the past, signifying the fact that “the United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.”

See Jimmy Carter, “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” New York Times (op-ed), June 24, 2012.

Carter continued,

Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.

These policies and actions, he wrote, signaled “a dramatic change from the past”, when the United States exercised bold leadership in securing the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Its adoption, wrote Carter,

…was a bold and clear commitment that power would no longer serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile.

The declaration has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world’s dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs.

But, he continued,

It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

He noted further, that

(R)ecent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications…

Carter harshly criticized the use of drone attacks, writing that

Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.

These policies were counterproductive in terms of American foreign policy, he observed, noting that

Top intelligence and military officials, as well as rights defenders in targeted areas, affirm that the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior.

The 39th president of the United States also criticized the fact that the Guantánamo Bay facility remains open, with 169 prisoners still detained there. While “about half  have been cleared for release,” their chances of ever obtaining their freedom are slim, he asserted.

Some of those being tried have been tortured, Carter noted, writing:

American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers. Astoundingly, these facts cannot be used as a defense by the accused, because the government claims they occurred under the cover of “national security”. Most of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either.

In conclusion, former president Carter argued,

At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

U.S. violation of international human rights is counterproductive, he asserted, because it “abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”  As “concerned citizens”, we must now persuade Washington “to reverse course and regain moral leadership according to international human rights norms that we had officially adopted as our own and cherished throughout the years.”

This forceful critique of American human rights violations made by Jimmy Carter, the American president most closely associated with U.S. leadership in the field of human rights, will undoubtedly have a significant impact over time, both abroad and at home.

II. Dr. King and Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence—Bearing the Cross for Truth, Justice and Peace

When I read ex-President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 24, calling out President Barack Obama for his human rights violations, both domestic and foreign, I was reminded of the afternoon I was driving in my car and first heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a Nobel Prize winner, deliver a powerful speech criticizing President Johnson and his conduct of the Vietnam war.

The feeling then, in 1967, was one of enormous relief. At last there was a figure of great and almost unparalleled national and international prominence, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, who had the courage to speak the truth as he saw it, according to his best lights, and his deep faith, however unpopular that truth might be.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave two sermons on Vietnam in April, 1967. The first, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” is a detailed but courageous speech that draws on many of the details of the history of Vietnam and the war which were familiar to his audience. It is delivered in a calm, reasoned tone. The second, a sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was pastor, is a strong sermon delivered in the cadences of the powerful preacher who King was. Entitled, “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam,” it hits the main points of the April 4 sermon, with greater emotional emphasis. It is probably more accessible to readers and listeners not familiar with the history and details of the Vietnam conflict. Links to both are found below. See

Rev. Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City).

The text is found here.

The audio is found here.

David Bromwich, “Martin Luther King’s Speech Against the Vietnam War,” Antiwar.com, May 16, 2008 (summary and analysis, with extensive excerpts).

See also:

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam,” Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, April 30, 1967. Excerpts from the audio and text are found here.

The complete audio (in RealAudio) is found here.

The original written text is found here.

NOTE: The two sermons are often confused, with the audio for the April 30 sermon often being attributed to the April 4 “Beyond Vietnam” sermon.

“The Obamians”, as James Mann has termed President Obama and his younger group of closest foreign policy advisers, in his new and revealing book on the foreign policy team in the White House, would especially benefit from listening to King’s speech, and his April 30, 1967 sermon. Their eyes reportedly glaze over when other advisers, usually older, refer to the Vietnam war and its lessons. They, and particularly the most important Obamian, President Obama himself, should listen to Martin Luther King’s speech and sermon, and reflect on what they hear, taking the moral authority of the speaker into account.

They might also bear in mind and take to heart the famous dictum,

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George de Sanayana, from “Life of Reason I”).

Mann’s book is fascinating. See

The Obanians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (Viking Penguin/The Penguin Group, 2012)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, exactly one year after his speech or sermon entitled, “”Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

III. Jimmy Carter’s Contribution to Human Rights

Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece should grab the public’s attention in the United States.

But the coverage in the U.S. press suggests the public may have become far too accustomed to the targeted killings, or “assassinations” in the words of Jimmy Carter–which is the correct term when the killings are conducted outside the framework of international law, far too accustomed to the debate over the efficacy of torture, far too complacent over the violation of bedrock principles of the U.S. Constitution, to pay much attention.

The press reaction in different countries is quite revealing, even if it takes a lot of work to uncover, due to the “filter bubble” Google and most other search engines now use, displaying search results only from our own country and in our own language. If you are in the United States and Google “Jimmy Carter” you won’t see the incisive articles published in the United Kingdom in The Guardian, The Telegraph or The Independent. You’ll see articles and blogs published in the United States.

We now live in information ghettos, where the opinions of those in other countries are filtered out of our consciousness. Moreover, due to the use of our previous search histories to filter the results that are displayed in, e.g., a Google search, within this subset of news and opinion we may even see news that leans more to the left or the right, depending on who we have read in the past.

Jimmy Carter has demonstrated in his op-ed that there are still Democrats in the United States with the courage to defend our civil liberties, and to fight for a foreign policy based on furthering human rights and democracy abroad, and compliance with the basic norms of international law, including those relating to human rights.

When historians of the future write about this period, they may mention Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece, and wonder how the people of this time in the U.S. went along with such egregious violations of the U.S. constitution and the most fundamental norms of international law.

Now the question is whether others will have the courage to speak out, even if the president committing these violations is from their own party–and the party they want to win in the November elections.

It is a stark moral choice. Listen to the audio of Martin Luther King’s April 4, 1967 speech and especially to the audio of his April 30, 1967 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He speaks of stark moral choices.

One is reminded not only of Martin Luther King, Jr., but also of those other defenders of civil liberties and democracy, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Vacslav Havel, and Lech Walensa. One is also reminded of humanity’s project of building international peace through the establishment of international law and institutions, and compliance with their norms.

In the field of human rights, President Jimmy Carter was one of those men. His support of human rights started a process in Latin America (and elsewhere) which led to the end of dictatorships and authoritarian rule, and the gradual consolidation of democracy throughout the hemisphere.

His push for human rights led to the ratifications of the American Convention on Human Rights which resulted in its entry into force on July 18, 1978. His support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the establishment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José Costa Rica, pursuant to the provisions of the American Convention, strengthened in the Americas a system of international protection of human rights similar in form to that established in Europe under the European Convention on Human Rights, in force since 1953.

Regrettably, the United States has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which President Jimmy Carter signed and submitted to the Senate for ratification. Nonetheless, the U.S. is still bound to observe the rights set forth in the American Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted by the members of the newly founded Organization of American States in Bogotá in April, 1948, months before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 of that year.

But the Inter-American system was called upon to protect human rights in the face of social and political realities that were vastly different from those in Europe in 1978, though one must recall that the European system too had its origins in tumultuous times following the end of World War II. The European Convention entered into force on September 3, 1953, establishing a Commission which functioned until 1998, and the European Court of Human Rights to which citizens since 1998 may now appeal directly without going through the Commission, which was abolished in 1998.

The Inter-American system, with that of Europe, also set a powerful example for Africa, which adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which entered into force on October 21, 1986. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has established an important body of precedent, and now the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, created pursuant to a protocol to the Charter which entered into effect on January 25, 2005, has also been established, and may one day soon merge with the African Court of Justice. The African Commission and Court are having an increasing impact on the achievement and consolidation of democracy and the rule of law on the continent.

All three of these regional systems were inspired by, and gave further expression to, the ideals and norms contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Worth noting is that the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on December 10 of each year.

In supporting these developments, and continuing his struggle for democracy and human rights since he left office in January, 1981, Jimmy Carter deserves the most profound respect and thanks of the world community, including the people of the United States. During his time in office, while mistakes were made, he carried forward the torch of human rights. For his work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

For speaking out now against violations of the most fundamental norms of human rights and international law, and even and particularly when those violations were and are committed by his own government, Jimmy Carter deserves our highest praise.

Thank you, President Carter.

And thank you, Dr. King. For your example, moral clarity, and courage, which we hope will guide us now.

The Trenchant Observer


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