Time to Break Silence

April 4, 2017 will be the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.  In confronting the deeply rooted racism,  militarism and materialism of the United States,  Dr. King described the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

Delivered to an overflow crowd at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4,  1967, Dr. King’s challenge to engage in a radical revolution of values encountered ferocious opposition.  Fifty years later,  however,  it is clear that his analysis and his call to action is as relevant now as it was then.

  • Today the United States has a multi-trillion dollar permanent war economy, the costliest deployment of weapons and military personnel in the world and at home a vast system of mass incarceration,  a hideous homicide rate and endemic violence against women and LGBTQ people.
  • Today as a result of our society’s virulent racism, people of color are subjected to unrelenting state violence through police brutality, police murder and massive incarceration rates,  while suffering gross disparities in income, education, employment, military service, housing and health care.
  • Today materialism dominates our culture and our economy to the peril of all life on earth. It pollutes our values, our souls and the natural world.
  • Today we know that the struggle against sexism and patriarchy is intrinsically linked to overcoming racism, militarism,  materialism and environmental catastrophe.

These truths are too rarely discussed. We are too often silent, too often ruled by despair or indifference.

The National Council of Elders (NCOE) is resolved to join with others to break this deadly silence.  We will organize group readings of the Dr. King’s speech on April 4,  2017.  We ask schools,  churches,  civil rights groups,  labor organizations,  museums,  community organizations and others to join us in building this movement to break silence,  promote dialogue and engage in non-violent direct action.

The National Council of Elders (NCOE) was founded by Rev James Lawson, Jr,  Rev Phillip Lawson and the late Dr. Vincent G. Harding.  It was Dr. Harding who wrote the draft of Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence.  We are defined in our mission statement as “20th Century Organizers committed to the theory and practice of nonviolence, united to engage with organizers of the 21st century.”

Edited by Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.

James Lawson Jr. first shook hands with Martin Luther King Jr. on February 6,1957, at Oberlin College in Ohio. Their conversation compelled Lawson to move to the South to join the emerging struggle for justice and dignity. On the eve of his assassination, King called Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

Lawson’s first nonviolent direct action campaign was in Nashville, where he led the series of lunch-counter sit-ins that successfully challenged segregation. The workshops that Lawson held in the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence trained a new generation of activists who subsequently organized path-breaking campaigns throughout the South, including the Freedom Rides. In California, Lawson has worked with hotel workers, janitors, home care workers, and undocumented immigrant youth to embrace nonviolence in historic organizing victories.

This publication emerged from a class taught by James Lawson, Kent Wong, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez at UCLA, and it was written by students who were inspired by the class.

ISBN 978-0-9836289-6-5

Statements from the Elders

Statement of Mission and Purpose

We are 20th century organizers committed to the theory and practice of nonviolence, united to engage with organizers of the 21st century.

We are urgently called to this mission by the escalation of all forms of violence and the rise of anti-democratic forces.

We are working toward a United States free of the domination of racism, sexism, militarism, materialism, economic inequality, and the destruction of the natural world.


In November, 2009, James Lawson, his brother Phil Lawson and their civil rights co-worker, Vincent Harding, called a handful of veterans from 20th century social justice movements to begin organizing a (U.S.) Council of Elders whose members would offer their insights and support to leaders and activists of the 21st century.

Already the National Council of Elders has grown to include veterans of a wide range of 20th century civil rights, justice, environmental, LGBT, and peace movements.

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