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Like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 52 years later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King faced strong criticism for comparing U.S. policy to Nazi atrocities.

The occasion was his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, also known as “A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, one year before his assassination. It wasn’t Dr. King’s first statement against the US war in Vietnam, but it was his most detailedVietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967.

Based on a draft prepared by his friend, the historian and educator Vincent Harding, King elaborated his reasons for opposing the war, including the impact on anti-poverty efforts, the war’s disproportionate impact on the black community, his commitment to nonviolence, and the obligations he felt as a Christian minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Considering the riots of the previous three summers, King said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence it the world today—my own government.” He continued with a short history of French and American intervention in Vietnam, leading up to the 1960s, in which the US was supporting corrupt governments, dropping tons of bombs, setting villages on fire with napalm, and deploying thousands of troops.

“So far, we may have killed a million of them, mostly children,” he said, using a statistic he had recently come across in an article published in Ramparts.

Dr. King continued, “What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentrations camps of Europe?”

Today, King’s Riverside speech is often cited as one of his most prophetic, where he tied together the most pressing issues of the day. That was anything but the reaction he met at the time, when other civil rights leaders distanced themselves from him and major media commentaries insisted he had gone astray. Life called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post claimed King’s allegations contained “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy.”

And the New York Times chided King for “recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis.”

Stung by the criticism, King issued a slight apology, at least to the comment in the Times. “The press and critics quoted this statement out of context. I had no intention of equating the U.S. and Nazi Germany,” he wrote. “Indeed, recognition of American democratic traditions, and the absence of them in Nazi Germany, makes it all the more disturbing if even some elements of similarity of conduct appear.”

But King’s Riverside statement was, in fact, accurate. The Pentagon Papers, released in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, revealed a passage dated April 19, 1961, recommending that the United States “concentrate U.S. military research and development to develop better military equipment for use in resolving insurgency problems in Vietnam. The area should be treated as a laboratory and providing ground, as far as this is politically feasible.”

In the present moment, perhaps it is less important to agree on whether the prisons in which immigrant children and adults are being held can be called “concentration camps” than it is to agree that they are cruel, unnecessary, and must be closed as soon as possible. In the meantime, I join those who say, “never again means now.”

Or, as Dr. King said at Riverside Church, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

(This is based in part on an article I wrote in 1991, when Dr. King’s opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam was a major factor in resistance to enacting a New Hampshire state holiday in his honor.)

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