In January 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. packed several suitcases and secluded himself on the coast of Jamaica, far from the telephone, far from the crises roiling America.
It would not go down in history as one of his most famous trips. King was trying to finish writing a new book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” But the answer King found would change the course of his activism until his death.
Back in the U.S., tensions were rising. Congress had passed civil-rights protections after his campaigns in the South, but many black Americans remained crushed under poverty. Younger black activists were beginning to question King’s strategy of nonviolence, which had won him a Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier.
And the nation was at war. While flipping through Ramparts, a leftist literary and political magazine, at a Jamaican restaurant, King came across a 28-page photographic essay documenting children who had been scorched by U.S. military napalm attacks in Vietnam. King pushed a plate of food away.
“I looked up and said, ‘Doesn’t it taste any good?’” Bernard Lee, an associate, later recalled to one of King’s biographers. King replied, “Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.”
Fifty years ago this year, King began agitating against the Vietnam War, a lesser-remembered chapter of his career in which the preacher once again launched an unpopular battle against the prevailing opinions of the establishment, the broader public and even some allies.
The war is now widely viewed as a catastrophic mistake. But in remembrances today, on the national holiday bearing his name, it’s likely that few public figures will hearken back to King’s solemn “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York, where he said, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ ”
If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’
America’s entanglement in Vietnam dated back to the end of World War II, when France wanted to keep control of its Indochina possessions and the Vietnamese rebelled. The U.S. had provided advisors for France’s failed effort to quell the rebellion.
In the 1960s, the United States allied itself with South Vietnam, claiming that a takeover by communist-led North Vietnam would pave the way for communism to spread throughout Southeast Asia. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. began an escalation of bombings and troop deployments.
In the beginning, the public had largely accepted politicians’ arguments that the war was necessary, though a growing number of protesters were starting to raise their voices.
King was not the first black activist to take a bold public stand against the war. His wife, Coretta, spoke at an antiwar rally in Washington in 1965. Stokely Carmichael, in his famous “Black Power” speech in October 1966, given after stepping down as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called the Vietnam conflict “an illegal and immoral war.”
And while King was in Jamaica in January 1967, James Bevel, a fellow leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, made a surprise visit to tell King he’d had a revelation: “Why are you teaching nonviolence to Negroes in Mississippi but not to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam?” Bevel said, according to historian Taylor Branch in his book “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.”
King had previously publicly expressed some concerns about the war, but Johnson posed a major strategic conundrum. Johnson had been one of King’s greatest allies in Washington and had helped shepherd through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Democratic president also had championed antipoverty programs, another of King’s signature causes.
But the growing war also had come under Johnson’s leadership.
“There was a strong feeling that to get the antipoverty programs — the support they needed — King should not publicly oppose Lyndon Johnson’s policies, because that would push him out of the circle of people who Johnson relied on for supporting his domestic agenda,” said Clayborne Carson, an editor of King’s papers and the director of the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
King pushed ahead. His aides began drafting a speech. Clarence Jones prepared one of the earliest drafts, which King rejected.
“He said, ‘Clarence, I thought you were my radical,’” Jones recalled in an interview with the journalist Tavis Smiley, adding that he told King, “I don’t quite understand what you mean.”
King said the speech was too wishy-washy. “The Vietnam War is either morally right or morally wrong — it’s not ‘on the one hand’ or ‘on the other hand,’” King told Jones.
The speech was refined, and on April 4, 1967, in front of a packed audience at the Riverside Church, King called the war “an enemy of the poor” that was swallowing the nation’s young men and its resources for antipoverty programs like a “demonic, destructive suction tube.”
King complained that black soldiers who couldn’t get their full rights at home were doing a disproportionate amount of the fighting in Vietnam. He also said that it was becoming difficult to tell young radicals in America not to pursue their agendas using violence when that’s what the nation was doing abroad.
Above all, the war in Vietnam symptomized a larger problem with American society, King said, calling for a rapid shift “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
“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,” King said.
Public condemnation came quickly, especially in the news media.
“Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence,” the Washington Post said in an editorial. “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.”
An April 16 news article in the Los Angeles Times described King’s antiwar views as “extreme,” and the next day, the newspaper ran an editorial cartoon captioned “Dr. King takes the plunge,” showing him diving head-first into an empty swimming pool labeled, “Vietnam criticism.” One opinion poll from that spring showed that 73% of Americans disagreed with King’s denunciations of the war.
King also caught flack from his own allies. The NAACP’s board of directors unanimously voted that combining the civil rights and antiwar movements was a “serious tactical mistake.”
One professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama wrote to King: “For many years I have considered you one of the greatest living Americans — indeed, one of the greatest living men. Now, however, that you have joined the anti-Vietnam War movement, I am ashamed of you.” Donations to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to drop.
King also lost his biggest ally in Washington. “Once he took the stand against the war, he was really not welcome at the White House anymore,” Carson said.
Ultimately, King’s speeches and rallies were not instrumental in ending the war, at least not in the way they undermined Jim Crow laws across the South. He was assassinated in Memphis by a small-time criminal in 1968 on April 4, one year to the day after the “Beyond Vietnam” speech. His antipoverty and job campaigns had minimal effect, and the war didn’t end until 1975.
“The last three years of his life, he failed,” Carson said, noting that poverty and war remain ongoing issues for America today.
“The importance of King’s book — ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ — we still haven’t answered that question,” Carson said. “The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played 100 times as much as the Riverside speech. … Probably every American knows the words — ‘I have a dream,’ ‘Free at last’ — those phrases.”
But when Americans listen to King speeches and see his memorials, Carson said, “You don’t see that phrase where he’s talking about the United States as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”