“A Time to Break Silence”: Swarthmore’s Virtual Reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic April 4th Speech.

On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, exactly a year before his assassination, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his renowned speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Famously denouncing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War abroad and continued racism back home, Rev. Dr. King’s address powerfully unified both conflicts with a call to collective action and reform. 

In commemoration of this speech, the King and Breaking Silence Organization broadcasted an intergenerational call for unity and action against continued U.S militarism and systemic racism. 54 years after King’s historic speech in 1967, the organization hosted a public reading on their website of Rev. Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” on April 4, 2021. The organization also invited other institutions and organizations to host their own readings of King’s speech. 

In response to this intergenerational call, Educational Studies Professor Edwin Mayorga and Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Lee Smithey of Swarthmore College organized a separate virtual reading of Rev. King’s speech. A collection of forty students, alumni, faculty, emeritus faculty, staff, and anti-war activists volunteered to participate in the reading. 

Smithey and Mayorga invited Swarthmore community members to participate in the reading by distributing an email calling for volunteers. The email was then forwarded by different departments to increase participation. Professor Smithey divided the speech into segments which volunteers then picked and signed up to read. After signing up, volunteers recorded themselves reading their section and uploaded the recording to a designated Google Drive folder. 

On April 6, Mayorga sent an email to the Swarthmore community containing a link to view and listen to the completed reading. 

In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Smithey described the inspiration behind organizing the reading. 

“Dr. King’s speech ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ remains immensely relevant today, more than half a century since he delivered it,” he wrote. The intersections of militarism, racism, and poverty continue to plague the United States and the globe. Plus, the fantastic array of important organizations making the call on us to reflect on the speech should not be ignored.” 

These organizations include the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, the SNCC Legacy Project, and the National Black Justice Coalition. Among others, they sponsored the King and Breaking Silence Organization’s virtual reading of Dr. King’s speech. 

Mayorga also believes that Rev. Dr. King’s speech is especially relevant within the Swarthmore community as we address the College’s involvement with the Chamberlain Project. The Chamberlain Project, organized by the Retiring Officer Teaching Fellowships, is a partnership program with various U.S. liberal arts colleges in which retired officers of the U.S. military with appropriate academic credentials teach two full credit courses at a participating institution. 

“I’ve been an educator-activist for over twenty years, including antiwar activism. When Professor Smithey pitched this idea, and with our recent discussions concerning the College’s involvement with the Chamberlain project, I saw this [reading] as an opportunity to once again cultivate a shared voice on campus around the devastating effects of militarization globally,” he wrote.

Besides commemorating the speech itself, Smithey believes that the reading crucially calls attention to the importance of intergenerational conversations about the topics addressed in King’s speech. 

“We are still grappling with the same dominant paradigms of violence and inequality today, so it makes sense to build solidarity among people who recognize the problems and envision more just and peaceful futures,” he wrote. “We have much to learn from the experience of our elders, and it works both ways. Young people have much vision, energy, and understanding to share. In short, we need each other across generations.”

Echoing Smithey’s emphasis on intergenerational efforts towards peace, Mayorga argues that productive change and transformation cannot happen without collaboration between generations. 

“The struggle for justice must be multigenerational if we have any hopes of transforming our world, so we should be in that practice any time we have the opportunity to do so,” Mayorga wrote. 

Smithey and Mayorga both placed special emphasis on highlighting the availability of non-violent alternatives to military intervention and said they felt inspired by the volunteers who elected to participate and valued the opportunity to engage with many different aspects of the Swarthmore community through the reading. 

One such volunteer, Associate Director of Gender and Sexuality Initiatives and Women’s Resource Center Program Manager Tiffany Thompson, felt especially connected to the section of the speech she read. 

“As a Black American who is a descendent of slaves, I am fully aware of the invisible shackles that me and other black people possess. The section I read spoke to that,” she wrote in an email exchange with The Phoenix. 

With the Black Lives Matter Movement, alongside other prominent social justice movements, calling for unified action against systemic racism, Thompson believes that the reading highlights both the success of unified action in effecting change and the longevity of the struggle against racism. 

“BLM was born from an intergenerational call for the world to finally pay attention to racial injustice and systemic racism. We are currently witnessing how unity and action through the BLM movement is making a difference. This reading is just a reminder that we have been in this fight for a long time.” 

Additionally, student reader Joe Radek ’24 appreciated how the reading’s intergenerational format brought together members of the Swarthmore community. Radek signed up to participate in the reading by responding to Mayorga’s email and selecting the first section of King’s speech. 

“I think that [the reading] connected professors and students [by] work[ing] on a project together. … Especially given the difficulties of being apart right now …  it was a good way to connect faculty and students during a disconnected time,” he said in an interview with the Phoenix. 

Radek also felt positively impacted by his experience participating in the reading. 

“It was empowering to read the speech. It was a pretty cool experience to be able to go back and relate history and reread the speech for a very different audience,” he said.

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