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The Trumpet of Conscience

Page history last edited by David Hodges 13 years, 7 months ago


Read some background information about Dr. Martin Luther King in Write to Be Read, pp. 149-153. (Part 4, Focus on Writing Skills is helpful too.) Then read and react to the speech excerpt I have retyped below, a speech given by Dr. King in 1968 at the height of America's war against Communist forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.


The Trumpet of Conscience

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle [for equality for black Americans]. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietman, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such.


Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and east Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on the TV screen as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.


My third reason moves to even deeper level of awareness, but it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years—especially the last three summers. As I walked among the desperate, rejected, angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion, while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But, they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?"—and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace—I answer that I have worked too long and hard now against segregated accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. It must also be said that it would be rather absurd to work passionately and unrelentingly for integrated schools and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to be integrated.


To me the relationship of this [Christian ministry] to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. We [clergy] are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.



This extraordinary speech connects themes of violence, inequality, injustice, moral outrage, and human brotherhood. At the time it was written, black Americans were still viciously oppressed at home, yet they served in Vietnam to defend their country in numbers far larger than their percentage of the population. Dr. King's words bring chills of recognition to this reader who, at the time the speech was delivered, was a young, privileged white male American, subject to the military draft but much less likely to serve and die in Vietnam than black Americans my age.


Some questions to get the conversation started:


1. What's the particular tragedy of an expensive, politically challenging war breaking out when it did?


2. What's the irony of the out-of-proportion black soldiers serving half a world away?


3. How does King answer critics who can't reconcile his civil rights advocacy with his anti-war advocacy?


ASSIGNMENT: Make a significant, relevant and responsive contribution to a conversation about Dr. King's speech. Remember, the theme of the chapter is "Questions of Right and Wrong." Don't be distracted. Make close references to the text or context of the speech itself.


MINIMUM ACCEPTABLE PRODUCTION: While one extraordinary comment would be sufficient, to be safe, make several, some of which respond to classmate comments. Never write merely to agree. Differ, support, argue, amplify or counter; but never just applaud.


DEADLINE: Midnight  (11:59 PM) THU SEP 23.


Comments (Show all 63)

David Hodges said

at 5:40 pm on Sep 23, 2010

I hope we'll have a chance to debate your point, Wei. Clearly people have different values, and these differences often resemble choices between right and wrong. However, perhaps there are universal human values fundamental enough to qualify as right and wrong. Obviously, when we discuss the chapter, "Questions of Right and Wrong" we'll examine exactly those questions.

David Hodges said

at 5:43 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Of course you're right, Carmen; it's also true that poor young black men still serve disproportionately in the army, on the ground, at the front. We don't draft them any more, but they don't have many opportunities either, that might keep them from enlisting as soldiers. When Senators' sons and daughters are on the front lines in a desert war, you'll see how quickly we find a way to make peace and bring them all home!

Duong Thang Ly said

at 6:20 pm on Sep 23, 2010

I couldn't agree more, Mr. David. In my arrogant opinion, this world, especially in America, seems to be created for the rich and powers people. If they make mistake or do something wrong, they will repeatedly say: "Everybody have mistake, why we do not give them another chance to enhance themselves." However, if the black or poor make the same mistake, they will not hesitate to say, "We should discipline them to warn the others." According to the Declaration of Independence of the U.S, "we all are equal", but it woman fight for almost a century for their right to vote and more than 2 centuries for African American's right to elect.

David Hodges said

at 5:48 pm on Sep 23, 2010

That's exactly right, Meina. The costs of war are unsustainable. The money could always be better spent, and the loss of lives can never be undone. Maybe things will be better for Iraqis once they take back control of their own country and form a stable, more equitable government than the dictatorship we've toppled. If so, at great cost, some justice will have been served.

meina chen said

at 6:09 pm on Sep 23, 2010

I know that Dr.king always fight for the poor people,freedom and the people get right for equality because in that country it had discrimination, human rights, inequalities exist in the world. but the thing is people they use the violent action to solve the problems,so Dr.king says that is not the good ways to solve problem.

David Hodges said

at 6:31 pm on Sep 23, 2010

If you're familiar with Malcolm X, Meina, you may already know that the civil rights movement of the 1960s wasn't entirely non-violent. When Dr. King indicates the close relationship between racial activism and war protests, he means he was taking a stand against violence both at home and in Southeast Asia.

qiang lin said

at 6:18 pm on Sep 23, 2010

After I read this speech, I realized the Dr.King fight for the right of the poor people and african american and other minorities. He support of non-violence and against the war, a war doesn't have a winner and any benefit to a country, it only makes economic decline and human losses.

David Hodges said

at 6:35 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Good to see you here, Quiang! Is this your first comment on this reading? Stick around awhile and reply to some of your classmates' comments!

qiang lin said

at 6:48 pm on Sep 23, 2010

yes, this is my first comment on this reading, I will reply some of my classmates' comment. My name did't have u just qiang.

meina chen said

at 6:19 pm on Sep 23, 2010

By the way, Dr.king says that it doesn't matter what they say , he has always preached non-violent and freedom in the same everywhere.

David Hodges said

at 6:38 pm on Sep 23, 2010

That sounds like an answer to Question #3, Meina. Thanks. At this point, we can probably move past the questions altogether! They did their job by getting the conversation started.

Doriana Kenaci said

at 6:33 pm on Sep 23, 2010

I feel bad for African American pople,for what happened to them.They wasn't allowed to go at the same school as white people go,or to live in the same neighbourhood with white people only becouse they were black.To ban someone's the human rights only becouse his ''skin color'',this is extremely disctimination.I suppose myself as if I was in place of them black people,I would feel so insulted,disrespected in front of other people.Dr.Martin Luther King did the best thing that fighted for equality between white and black people.They were human,so they supposed to have rights as well.

David Hodges said

at 6:43 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Well, you've certainly put your finger directly on the "Question of Right and Wrong," Doriana! Perhaps you've identified a universal moral imperative too, deeper and more fundamental than the values of an individual culture.


at 7:44 pm on Sep 23, 2010

As i read this article,i deeply felt that the war destroyed many people's hopes and brought more hatred.Do you know how the terrorists produce?They were produced by some defeated nations.They hate those countries so much that ever hurt their country.They can't recover fully for the war injury,so they endlessly plan and make more terrorist incidents to the countries that hurt their country.We should think back whether we did a right or wrong event.They are a curse that we made.If we don't stop the war,this curse will continue,the sad events will continue,the peace will be farther and farther to us,so we must believe what Dr. king said,violence can never solve anything.

David Hodges said

at 3:12 am on Sep 24, 2010

It is certainly true that we live forever with the legacy of our violence, Huai Jin, just as you say. A country that invades another will create enemies that never forget. What advice can we offer the country that's invaded though? What other than violence can they use to repel the invaders?

Duong Thang Ly said

at 8:26 pm on Sep 23, 2010

It was so ironic and ridiculous. As Dr. King said, "... we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on the TV screen as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools..." The U.S Governments was spending African Americans to the battle meanwhile they did not recognize their basic human rights in nation as they mentioned in Declaration of Independence. As a matter of fact, the blacks and whites found their true fellowship during their serving in the war. That indicated we all are the same products of God, no matter how different our appearance are.

David Hodges said

at 3:16 am on Sep 24, 2010

Is that your phrase, Duong: "found their true fellowship"? It's a beauty!

xiuyun ling said

at 8:50 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Thank you,Carmen.Racism still a problem in USA , not only for black American .and immigrant have been treated this.

xiuyun ling said

at 8:51 pm on Sep 23, 2010

even couldnt be voted at that time

BABAR I. said

at 8:55 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Dr. King always said that violence is never the answer for anything. I admire DR. King for what he did. He never used or acknowledged violence even though he was arrested several times.

David Hodges said

at 3:18 am on Sep 24, 2010

Another world-class champion of the rights of poor oppressed citizens was also famous for his willingness to be arrested in a very different part of the world at about the same time, Babar. Do you know who I mean?

BABAR I. said

at 3:44 pm on Sep 24, 2010

I'm not sure who are you talking about. I searched it on Google but couldn't find the person.

xiuyun ling said

at 8:55 pm on Sep 23, 2010

I guess young people make this decision to join the army by themselves at this century. Because USA is freedom country now.

yanwen mai said

at 8:58 pm on Sep 23, 2010

After I readed a speech which "The trumpet of conscience",I raalized I'm a craven person.Martin Luther King can be very

famous in the America because he braved to pose his question ,made he hope to the true,and helped the black people to had equality

treat.He was aqainst violence and inequality.I believe a lot of people are aqainst violence and inequality.but not a lot of the people

people would like to stand out to help the victim.Includeing me,that why I said myself is a craven person. Even when we hear a word "war"

on one would like this word except someone special.I think maybe this kind of people want to be famous of world or be a hero in their nation

which one like Osama bin laden.why tow people want to help their people ,one was we proud of him ,the other one was public enemy of the world.

that was depend on their wisdom.War give us feeling are fear,hurt,dread,in despair.......no one is we like.At the long time ago,people started

war for protert their family,but now notions start the war maybe for the conflict of interests or other.They forget the people already.In the world of rightnow,

who can promise to protert our life and our family? I believe when the war start,we're never be a prey.

David Hodges said

at 3:25 am on Sep 24, 2010

I didn't understand all of that, Yanwen, but you certainly covered a lot of topics! You're being very harsh to call yourself craven. I know what you mean though. Dr. King makes us all seem weak in our convictions. It's very easy to get along and hard to stand for what is right.

wenjun zhou said

at 9:07 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Mr. David...Did you miss my discussion? I was waiting for your replication.

lucy said

at 9:57 pm on Sep 23, 2010

i think is unjust that the black people had to go to war ang fight while they were treated really bad, by the way i agree with r king. "violence does not resove you problems, violence only bring more violence.

David Hodges said

at 3:27 am on Sep 24, 2010

Good to see you, Lucy. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Jahanvi joshi said

at 10:07 pm on Sep 23, 2010

After i read this article i started imagining Dr. King as an Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, he preferred Non-violence than violence and so as Dr.King. The particular tragedy of war is poor people, war can actually end up in making people starve. I totally agree with what Dr.King said, "Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems", it can only end up in killing people and producing more enemies. It's a pain for those countless black soldiers serve for a country and don't even come back and die on the spot. It's terrific! There is no point of fighting if that really doesn't give a piece but only more jealousy and feel of revenge. Still we shouldn't forget Dr. Kings contribution to help African Americans get their freedom and teaching the lesson of non violence. Today wherever America and the status of African American is also because of Dr. King's foundation.

David Hodges said

at 3:33 am on Sep 24, 2010

I'm not surprised you would make the connection between King and Gandhi, Jahanvi. Martin Luther King never met Gandhi, who was assassinated when King was about 20, but Gandhi certainly was an influence on King's nonviolent approach to fighting for social change.

shahar cohen said

at 11:30 pm on Sep 23, 2010

When i read this article, two parts realy catched my eye. First was the part in which Dr. king is explaining how of a cruel irony it is when more blacks are sent to fight in the war in Viatnam than whites, while the blacks are being treated so badly by the whites. It is an irony because those African Americans sent to protect the country they are being segregated by the government. and i agree with every word Dr. king wrote in this part; "And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on the TV screen as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit."
The second part that I felt very conected, and I strongly agree with is; "We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers." I strongly agree with this part because i believe every one of us is as equal as the other no metter where you came from, the colore of your skin, shape of your eye, or even your religion. We are all the same.

David Hodges said

at 3:38 am on Sep 24, 2010

It's particularly appropriate to see the words "no document from human hands" here, Shahar, after our discussion about border patrol agents demanding documentation from train passengers. Did that thought cross your mind too, as you read the passage you quoted here?

Jean Roberson Hilaire said

at 11:43 pm on Sep 23, 2010

Before the war against Vietnam, the government tried to lower the rate of poverty through poverty programs. Suddenly, with the Vietnam War, the government invested all their funds and energies into the war, forgetting they had started some programs to reduce poverty rates. However, the same categories of people, who had to be the beneficiaries of these programs, are the ones who are deployed overseas to fight in the war. Therefore, out-of-proportion black soldiers were sent overseas to fight for the liberty of the Vietnamese, while, at their home they had been crippled by their government in justice and their own war against poverty.

David Hodges said

at 3:40 am on Sep 24, 2010

That's a stunningly effective summary of the ironic situation Dr. King describes, Jean. Timely too! You managed to get in before the deadline!

David Hodges said

at 3:08 am on Sep 24, 2010

It would certainly be tragic for any individual to volunteer to go to war to earn his country's respect, Wenjun. But thousands of young black men didn't get to make that tragic choice; it was made for them when their draft numbers came up, forcing them into the Army.

David Hodges said

at 3:46 am on Sep 24, 2010

Wonderful work, class! My thanks and congratulations to all of you who contributed to this discussion! I'm particularly happy when you reply to your classmates' comments, which is much more effective than depending on me to reply to each of you. I hope as you get more comfortable with the wiki, you'll communicate with one another more. As always, the discussion board is always open, even though the deadline has passed. Stop back any time to support, amplify, or argue with anything you've read here.


at 6:05 pm on Sep 24, 2010

Most Americans cherish freedom and independence. Sometimes the war knit the nation together, but people purchased freedom with their blood.
They must cherish experiences acquired at the cost of blood, in order to stop the war in the world.


at 6:27 pm on Sep 24, 2010

African Americans had lived harder in the past. fortunately, they are now honorable, contributive, and important to America.


at 7:42 pm on Sep 24, 2010

American people have no words to express their gratitude; they have expressed the depth of their gratitude to Dr. King, and have appreciated his honorable behavior.
He was fighting for equality to make the United States have freedom and independence.
But in fact, discrimination and inequality still exist in all over the world. Some countries even don’t have human rights, freedom and justice.
They are living painfully.

David Hodges said

at 8:40 pm on Sep 24, 2010

Your statements are powerful, TongFu. Maybe we do grow closer as a nation at war, but at a terrible cost. As often as America has been perceived as a liberator and protector of other countries, it has been just as often perceived as a bully and an oppressor. Every choice in politics and foreign affairs has its benefits and its costs. Thank you for your contributions.

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