Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (seen here, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964) spoke out more directly and passionately against the Vietnam War than he ever had before 50 years ago this week, in a controversial address, “Beyond Vietnam,” at New York’s Riverside Church. The Nobel laureate’s break with Lyndon B. Johnson, who had helped pass civil-rights legislation King had long advocated but who was now pursuing a conflict that the minister regarded as “madness,” came amid a year of personal anguish and reduced effectiveness in leading his movement.
As King looked out on April 4, 1967, at the Morningside Heights congregation, hosted by the antiwar group Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, he was aware that opponents had been questioning his direction over the past year. His 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., followed by passage of the Voting Rights Act a few months later, was his last significant victory. Since then, he had endured:
*a failed “Chicago Campaign” that failed to alter either de facto discrimination in the city’s housing or the broader plight of its African-American population;
*criticism from “Black Power” activists that his continued belief in nonviolent protest was too accommodating to white power structures; and
*gnawing self-doubt about his purpose as a leader. Once, he burst out at a meeting with associates that he wished he could simply be the pastor of a small church again. Instead, he had decided, while on a vacation that winter to finish his latest book, to embrace a broader role implied by his Nobel Prize: an advocate for wider social justice.
Above all, he was growing uneasy over American involvement in the Vietnam War and the collateral damage to African-Americans, the nation’s poor and world peace. At last, he told the full house at Riverside, he felt compelled to ‘‘break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.’’
At this point widespread public recognition that the American involvement in the conflict was a failure had not yet crystallized. (In fact, it hadn’t even coalesced among African-Americans. Even after King’s address, only a quarter of blacks backed his stance on the war, according to one opinion poll.) That meant he was already veering far out on a limb, particularly for a white population (already annoyed, even suspicious, about his protests) who thought he was getting even further from his core role than he should.
King’s constant traveling as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference left him little time to write a speech with such momentous implications for his cause. His associate Andrew Young helped stitch the address together with significant input from attorney Clarence Jones and King’s close friend Vincent Harding. “He knew that I would not be putting words into his mouth. I would simply be speaking as my friend would want to speak, and that was the way that I went about the task that he asked me to do,” Harding recalled in a 2008 interview with Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman included on the Website Democracy Now.
In his address, King reviewed the course of the war and offered reasons why he had come to oppose it--notably, diverted government resources and energy from the Great Society legislation proposed by LBJ only two years before, and the disproportionate impact of the conflict on the poor, who were forced to send “their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”
With time, King’s general rationale was repeatedly confirmed (e.g., “we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support.”) But two examples of rhetorical overkill undercut the speech’s effectiveness: 1) What did Vietnamese peasants think of America, he asked, “as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?” 2) In bombing defenseless villages, King claimed, the U.S. government had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
It was predictable that conservatives would fire back after the speech, taking their cue from William F. Buckley Jr., who termed it “one of the greatest acts of intellectual confusion in recent history.” The godfather of modern conservatism continued: “Dr. King gave a speech which could have been written in, indeed it was for all intents and purposes written in, Hanoi.”
More problematic for the future direction of liberalism in the U.S. was that King’s speech was condemned by such mainstream progressive media as The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as such prominent African-American leaders as Urban League head Whitney Young and the player who broke baseball’s color line, Jackie Robinson. The board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People even voted unanimously in favor of a resolution assailing his speech as a “serious tactical mistake.”
Most ominously for King’s future well-being, President Johnson was dangerously angered by King’s turn against him. He didn’t stop at merely referring to King in private as "that godd---ed n---er preacher." Instead, he stopped ignoring J. Edgar Hoover’s constant drumbeat of criticisms of the civil-rights leader and even asked his press secretary to distribute the FBI’s information about King’s ties with alleged Communist Stanley Levison to favorite reporters.
The animus caused by his Riverside speech may have helped fulfill King’s sense of his prophetic mission, but it came at the price of making him feel increasingly like a target, according to Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, who in January told USA Today: “There were a lot people who preferred that (King) be dead. If they wouldn’t bring it about, they certainly weren’t disturbed by it. My feeling is that King would not have survived the ‘60s in any case.”
On April 4, 1968, less than a week after Lyndon Johnson announced he would not be seeking re-election—and exactly one year since King had denounced the President’s Vietnam policy so dramatically—the civil-rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.