A year to the day before his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. was in New York City, at the Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, talking about Vietnam.
The speech, delivered to an audience that included the young activist leader John Lewis, now a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia, doesn’t typically show up in textbooks or mainstream reminisces about King’s righteousness, courage and nobility.
Fifty-one years later, its lack of prominence is a testament to King’s radical ambition: to expand the scope of the civil rights movement and draw clear the inexorable ties between domestic policy and unjust aggression abroad. The storm of criticism that followed arrived with a mix of fierce anger and lofty condescension. At Riverside, King denounced not only the war, but also a society accepting of the pretenses that sustained it.
On mainstream liberal editorial pages, the backlash often came cloaked as punditry. King, they said, had stepped out of his depth and threatened to undermine the movement by alienating his allies. But as so many friends have since testified, King knew the stakes and anticipated the howling reviews.
That in mind, he went forward and spoke anyway.
By April of 1967, public opinion about the Vietnam War had come to a crossroads. A few months later, in October, Americans who believed it was a “mistake” to send troops there would surpass those who said it wasn’t. Not until August 1968, according to Gallup surveys at the time, did a majority – barely, at 53% – call it an error.
King recognized his perilous position. The speech, crafted with Spelman College’s Vincent Harding, who would go on to become the first director of the King Center, addressed the spoiling reaction in its text.
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war,” he said, after explaining his presence was guaranteed only “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
What follows is a methodical dismemberment of decades of cynical American foreign policy in Southeast Asia – supporting colonial power, then propping up friendly strongmen in its absence – and an assured case, almost professorial in tone, that the war could not be separated from the struggle at home.
How, King asked, could he tell young men in rioting cities “that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems” when Americans in Vietnam were “using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted”?
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government,” he said. “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.”
King’s advice to young men facing the draft: Register as conscientious objectors. To those with more convenient ways out, he demanded a special commitment.
“Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors,” he said. “These are the times for real choices and not false ones.”
King also offered a plan, in five steps, “to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.” It began with a call to immediately end the bombing in both North and South Vietnam and ended with the US setting a date for the withdrawal of “all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.”
This wasn’t King reflecting on a change in his consciousness, but the product of a new willingness, or need, to reveal more of what he’d long believed. His decades-old affinity for leftist economic theory helped color his case against the war – in particular his assertion that the US purpose in Vietnam was, in fundamental terms, a violent “(refusal) to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” he said. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people,” The Washington Post declared.
The New York Times, too, published a damning assessment, titled “Dr. King’s Error,” arguing that it was “both wasteful and self-defeating” to link Vietnam with domestic inequity and unrest.
“Dr. King,” the piece resolved, “makes too facile a connection between the speeding up of the war in Vietnam and the slowing down of the war against poverty.”
The San Antonio Express ruled that King, “gripped” by some “strange logic,” was “tragically wrong in his viewpoint.”
“If King and his group really want to help themselves,” it continued, “they can show a spirit of support now lacking that will make the impression in Hanoi that America is not greatly divided in its determination to honor the commitment in Vietnam.”
Others were less measured in their language. Life magazine described the speech as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” while James Marlow, in his analysis for The Associated Press, suggested King’s drawing together Vietnam and civil rights was a cynical attempt to reclaim the “limelight.”
“Some Negro leaders publicly disagreed with these latest tactics of King,” he wrote. “Since he needs all the white and Negro support he can get to start the civil rights movement rolling again, it’s hard to see how he did it anything but injury.”
“Martin Luther King Crosses the Line,” The Cincinnati Enquirer blared, calling his words “arrant nonsense.”
The “unctuous” King “has been something of a hindrance to the civil rights movement since he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize,” they wrote. “Since the award, he has specialized in speaking in Olympian tones, rather than addressing himself to the practicalities of the civil rights movement.”
50 and one years later
Most Americans know, and might even be able to quote from, two of King’s most famous (and favored) speeches.
“I have a dream,” he said on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington. Less than five years later, on April 3, 1968, King told the Mason Temple in Memphis that he had “been to the mountaintop.”
The story – and message – of “Beyond Vietnam” remains less well known to most Americans, despite recent efforts, most notably those from Lewis, to elevate the speech into the King canon. Part of that traces back to the initial, stifling response, but it also reflects the continuing debate over the war, decades after the fall of Saigon.
“Like an underground coal fire that smolders largely unobserved but doesn’t go out, the controversies of the Vietnam War have continued to linger just below the surface of public consciousness,” Marvin Ott, a leading scholar of Southeast Asia studies, wrote in his 1995 review of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s book, “In Retrospect.”
Less than a decade later, GOP opponents of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry launched a successful ad blitz to distort his war record and undermine his campaign. Kerry, who returned from Vietnam and testified about its horrors on Capitol Hill, is still a controversial figure in veterans’ circles. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of the amorphous ongoing “war on terror,” have kept the issues that drove King to speak active – and unresolved – in the American body politic.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that politicians today tend to steer clear of King’s reckoning on Vietnam. That the 50th anniversary of his death comes during a period of heightened racial and economic tensions makes it even less likely that leaders from either party will look to his Riverside speech.
But their silence, even now, only amplifies his radical legacy.