Law in Contemporary Society

April 4, 1967 and September 16, 2001

This paper will explore the startling similarities between Martin Luther King Jr. and Jeremiah Wright in their assessment of American foreign policy and the potential ramifications for Americans.


A body fell limp on a balcony from a bullet wound to the neck 40 years ago Friday for words that were spoken exactly one year prior on April 4th, 1967. In his speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam- A Time to Break Silence’ King admonished United States foreign policy in Vietnam and throughout the world, warning in the words of Kennedy that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable”.

  • We've talked about this offline already, so I'll just restate for the record my doubt that one can confidently state that King was killed "for" opposing the Vietnam War.

Five days after 3,000 bodies disintegrated into ash

  • Sort of "too clean to be true," I fear. It was messier than that.

on Manhattan Island, Wright said, quoting Ambassador Peck, that “America’s chickens had come home to roost”.

  • I thought he was quoting Malcolm X. Malcolm used the phrase, as you may recall, in answer to a question concerning the assassination of the president on December 1, 1963, engendering substantial controversy. Even if Edward Peck did use the expression sometime after 2001, which I can't confirm, Wright's audience would surely have been more likely to remember it as Malcolm's.

He cited many examples of violence and hate committed by the American government against people throughout the world and towards its own citizens (including those not given that status) and reminded his congregation that ‘Violence begets violence. Hate begets hate. And terrorism begets terrorism.’

From the pulpit both men knew that the peace described by Jesus was not only a requisite of belief but also a way to govern a nation. And each man saw that a departure from it would or did result in suffering here for our citizens.


Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence (

After establishing the Vietnam war as a betrayal of American values, King warned his audience that he “wish(ed) to go on now to say something even more disturbing.” He described a foreign policy he saw as doomed for failure and made a call to action for a radical revolution in the way we interact with the world.

“During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of US military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments, accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable’”

King’s scathing criticisms of American foreign policy went far deeper than Wright’s superficial attacks. King described his disdain for the very nature of our foreign policy especially that which emerged after WWII. His meticulous navigation through the ugliest aspects of American foreign policy was rooted in his desire to drastically change the way we interact with the world. He hoped that one day we would, “With righteous indignation . . . look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the west investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just”.

But the speech does not just contain Obamaesque hope. It warns in no uncertain terms that if these changes are not made America will end up on the wrong side of a world revolution. It accuses America of making peaceful revolution impossible because we refuse to “give up the privileges and pleasures that come from immense profits of overseas investments.”

  • I don't know why you need the final sentence. It requires you to speculate, which opens an unnecessary hole. Your argument is complete without it. I would remove it.

America’s Chickens Are coming Home to Roost (

Wright’s speech goes where King was unwilling or unable to go. In his faith footnote at the three minute mark, Wright engages his congregation in a description of many of the worst acts by the United States government. He begins by describing the atrocities of history and navigates through time to events that recently occurred. After chronicling the examples of violence and terrorism that the United States government has either committed or supported, he concludes, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism.”

Although Wright’s rhetorical devices are far different from King’s both in diction and delivery, the essence of his speech is in lock step with King, namely, that a foreign policy based on exploitation and violence has consequences. King did not live to see decades of violent reactions to American foreign policy since Vietnam, but Wright’s comments are in some ways a reflection that King’s warnings have been manifest. Were he here, though he might not agree with Wright’s rhetoric, he would likely acquiesce to its logic.

  • You shouldn't ever let grammatical mistakes like that get by your proofreading. People do draw unconscious but destructive inferences from simple grammar errors made in haste, even when made by highly-educated people.


King’s final years saw his platform expand beyond race, drawing connections between race, poverty and American foreign policy.

  • This sentence ends awkwardly, which the first sentence of your conclusion must never do. The conclusion is the most rhetorically powerful part of any written work, and it should intensify resonance and flow, never suppress them.

Four decades later, Wright, like King, went beyond the acceptable box of racial discussion and instead attacked American foreign policy. As the media played isolated clips on loop and as those clips proliferated on youtube, America’s ire with the preacher grew and he was dismissed outright as a black anti American. When Obama realized he needed to address his pastor’s words he confined the discussion to race.

He likely understood that to confront the foreign policy aspects of the remarks would have been at least political suicide, but we are not faced with those same constraints. We are free to remember the warnings of four decades ago, examine our foreign policy since, and perhaps come to the same conclusion that Wright made - - that our actions abroad have consequences at home. Americans were not ready to heed Dr. King’s warning four decades ago, and we may not be ready to accept admonishment from a Chicago pastor now, but eventually we might all be drawn to the same conclusion. er

  • Another valuable lesson might be that there is no entity called "America," which either does or does not hear, but people. Americans on the left not only heard King on civil rights, but on the war and poverty as well. My mother had many reasons for waking me in tears that April night to tell me King had died: She was weeping for many murdered dreams. The divide separating those who are angry at Jeremiah Wright from those who heard truth to be angry about rather than at is not the divide between American and non-American. It's the divide between left and right. We never said "Americans" had to be leftists; here, only the right uses "patriotism" as an instrument to suppress opposing views.

-- BetreGizaw - 07 Apr 2008

  • I agree with the position taken by the paper: Wright was speaking in the language of civil rights radicalism, which embraces both the non-violence of Martin King, and the pre-hajj "chickens coming home to roost" aggressiveness of Malcolm X. Of course there are many white people in America for whom it's the expression of anger that sets off all the alarms: the society that raised itself on white supremacy has always worried in a special way about angry black people. But as you claim, I agree that the fear of radicalism is broader and more cognitively disabling: by concentrating on King's non-violence, and learning a few stock phrases that seem undangerous to them, many white people came to accept Martin King as a great American without actually accepting, or even reckoning with, what he actually believed. When they meet even a much-diminished version of his thought, they respond with a mixture of aggressive so-called patriotism and ignorant disbelief: do people whose ancestors have been oppressed and stolen from in America for 400 years actually disbelieve in the perfect right of the American power structure to use violence against other human beings in defense of capitalism? How unacceptable of them; no one can be a public figure who doesn't denounce this unpatriotic line of thought.

  • But although I think you've got the substance right, I think the essay defuses its force by proving the parallel too minutely and spending too little space on the significance of the outpouring of right-wing anger. You should have called that by its right name, too.



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r4 - 22 Jan 2009 - 00:38:29 - IanSullivan
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