Courage in a Time of Fear: Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War

in History/Political Thought by

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was taking a big gamble in making this speech. The year was 1967. April 4 was a damp and dreary Tuesday evening in New York City. Dr. King was to speak before a large and receptive crowd at New York’s famed Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though no one knew it at the time, Dr. King would have exactly one year left to live; in 365 days he would be struck down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. It was frightening and uncertain time.

Dr. King speaking at his Birmingham’s Sixteenth St. Baptist Church in 1963. An Atlanta native, Dr. King would come to be a thorn in the side of populist and racist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. In fact, in the early stages of the investigation, the FBI looked into whether Governor Wallace played a part in King’s assassination.

For Dr. King this had been a time of severe uncertainty too. He was adrift, without rudder or compass, in search of a new direction for his efforts to speak for the dispossessed. His time of wandering in the wilderness had begun at the climax of his success, the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by then-President Lyndon Johnson (D-TX).

The Act, passed by a southern politician no less, signified the capstone of the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time since reconstruction, racial bias and voter suppression would face serious and sustained judicial action and review through the federal courts. The federal government now had the legal as well as moral tools to prosecute any person, business, or government for racial prejudice and discrimination.

President Johnson perhaps spoke more than he knew when he was said to have uttered sullenly after signing the historic Act: “I have just lost the South for a generation.” But that all lay ahead in the future.

Dr. King busily making last-minute corrections to his remarks on his way to the podium at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. A consummate writer, King would later claim this speech was the most difficult he ever wrote—even more than his “I Have a Dream” speech that he is remembered for today.

For Dr. King the struggle now shifted gears from the blatant racism and bigotry that existed in the Jim Crow South to the fight for equality and rights in the urban cities of the North. Dr. King would soon find, however, that the last three years of his life would be years of surprising failure and disappointment, as cities, officials, and allies once sympathetic to him and his cause now slowly abandoned him—and the movement altogether. The great marches and rallies that had marked the movement’s highpoints from 1961 to 1964 had slowly eroded away in the face of the two new factors King now had to contend with.

The first was the rise of a new, young, and militant group of civil rights activists such as Mohammed Ali, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. They represented a growing and ever more vocal group of black Americans who no longer supported the nonviolent, gradual, and organized methods preached by men such as Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, of whom King counted himself an ally.

These men of the old guard faced a growing discontent and resentment from fellow African Americans for the suffering and indignities they continued to endure despite the tremendous gains from recent legislation. As for the young militants, their views would soon come to have a creed and image associated with their calls for black separatism and power, in the famed (or infamous) Black Panther Party.

Dr. King (left) and Stokely Carmichael (right) when both were on better terms with each other. The two were a study in contrasts: they diverged on where the next steps of the movement should go. Carmichael believed in militant activism in the streets with no quarter to those in power, whereas King believed in conciliation and continued outreach to all disaffected communities.

The other factor was Vietnam. By now over 450,000 American servicemen were in that tiny corner of Southeast Asia, well on its way to having more bombs dropped on it (roughly 2.5 million tons of explosive munitions) than in the entire European theater of World War II. It is estimated that over 1.3 million casualties (those killed, injured, captured, or missing) would be sustained in America’s longest armed conflict up to that time (the War in Afghanistan/War on Terror now bears that dubious distinction). But all that still lay in the future. On this day King would speak for the first time on Vietnam.

For a man who had been so outspoken throughout his short and remarkable life, up to now King been glaringly reticent about the war. His reasons for silence were understandable, as explained through the age-old maxim “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Dr. King knew that these great bills, acts, and laws of the Civil Rights Movement would have been relegated to the obscurity and death of some Washington committee had it not been for the towering force and strength of President Johnson. King, out of deference and respect for the president and his commitment to civil rights, had held his tongue.

Initially Dr. King had even once been a strong supporter of the war. Like many Americans of the late 1950s, it was patriotic to support a nation fighting against communist invasion. The stance also lent King and his early followers an air of respectability that made up for the constant and persistent rumors that they themselves represented a Communist fifth column in the United States.

Slowly, however, King began to learn of the real cost of mounting such a war—both in dollars and in lives. Precious tax-payer funds that would have gone to desegregate schools and housing were instead spent to sustain massive armies and bomb enemy sanctuaries. The draft that sent many a young man to Vietnam tended to send more African Americans and poor boys of all colors, young men who could not seek or win deferment from their service. Even the justification for increased hostility, the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, gave Dr. King cause for concern.

President Johnson (left) in a closed-door meeting with Dr. King (right). Although the two had been on friendly terms throughout the early 1960s, their relationship would turn cold as King became less willing to back the president’s agenda and more strident in his opposition to Vietnam.

Still Dr. King felt he knew his place and did not wish to tarnish his reputation or that of the greater struggle by speaking out against the growing controversy of the war. As draft boards began taking middle- and upper-class college students, resistance to the war inexorably moved higher and higher up the social ladder. By the time 1967 rolled around Dr. King knew he faced a choice: he could sidestep no longer. The title of his address went to the heart of his new thinking on the conflict: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

It would come to be known as King’s most controversial speech as well as the one he toiled the most to perfect and craft. Although his “I Have a Dream” speech carries with it the timelessness and beauty of his style and prose, “Beyond Vietnam” would show a different side of his oratory skills. He began by addressing his need to speak out by posing a series of questions asked of him:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

For King, being outspoken was a matter of moral principle and courage, not of political calculation or strategy. He continued by highlighting the vulnerability that antipoverty programs felt under the constraints of a major military action in the federal budget, saying,

I watched this [antipoverty] program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. 

Dr. King speaking at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. With the exception of sympathetic religious clergymen, most of King’s major and powerful allies would withdraw their support after his comments on Vietnam. Although it made the final year of his life that much more difficult, it freed him from the burden of having to tailor his remarks; he could now speak candidly from his heart.

From here Dr. King highlighted six more reasons, from the glaring racial and economic bias in draft rolls, to dissonance in fighting enemies abroad while failing to protect the vulnerable here at home, to his advocacy for peace in all fields, and to America’s ambiguous role in helping the Vietnamese people achieve self-determination. He culminated his reasons by citing the terrible consequences that total war had brought upon the women, children, and aged of that poor beleaguered nation with poisoned rivers, killed crops, great deforestation, and mass famine.

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.

From a man of such deep compassion and conviction, such statements as these could be expected from a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But given the restraint he had previously had on the subject, saying such things must have been a welcome liberation for him as well as a true shock and surprise to many of his allies. Dr. King knew he would pay for his remarks—his complimentary visits to the White House and his favorable coverage by the press would be over. Still, he could now speak his mind freely, uninhibited by his fears of reprisals.

For President Johnson the real and hard break with his administration by the “voice of black America” would be a blow he knew would be hard to recover from. Within the year more and more people would re-examine their own views of the conflict, and opposition to the war would only intensify. President Johnson would recuse himself from re-election on March 31, 1968, four days before King’s death.

In many ways the Vietnam War would serve as a prism from which to view so many other causes, such as the war on poverty, women’s liberation, civil rights (much to King’s regret), and many others. It would be a war that would divide a nation more than any bombing raid, political season, or social movement. And it would take generations to heal.

Despite his specific address toward the Vietnam War specifically, Dr. King addressed history itself when he spoke of the need for a revolution of minds rather than a revolution of guns by saying,

It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause, emphasis added] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the 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.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [applause]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This was the real Martin Luther King Jr. No matter how much we may learn and remember of his life, no matter how we may recite his “I Have a Dream” speech, no matter what we may know about his life, his triumphs, his failures, his joys, his pains, his family, his passions, even his prejudices, this we do know: His compassion knew no bounds. He saw his struggle as the essence of the American dogma—that no person should be deprived of their dignity and no price was too small to secure it.

This Black History Month and in future Martin Luther King Jr. Days ahead, remember the King of his last year. Remember his struggle, and remind yourself that it is the struggle of America itself. Dr. King could take comfort should he have lived that he stands in good company today. History has a way of doing that.

Javier Anderson considers himself a person of action. Whenever he's not in class (to become an engineer) he's either busy with a good book or working with his hands on something, be it his growing collection of stamps, communicating to the world via his Ham Radio, or thinking of the vexing problems of the day. His belief in the importance of civic engagement and participation are rooted from his diverse and loving family as well as his deep appreciation of history. Besides spending hours staring at spreadsheets and baseball games, Javier is also a person of what Theodore Roosevelt liked to call, "the strenuous life" and engages in all manner of sports to the fullest (three broken bones!). Imparting a sense of wonder and amazement about life is definitely his life's work!

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