On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City and called for an end to the Vietnam War. Exactly one year later, King was assassinated in Memphis.
King's speech in New York set the tone for the last year of his life. Inside the church, he was hailed for his brave, outspoken stance against the war. Outside the church, he was roundly condemned - by the mainstream press, by other civil rights activists and, most decidedly, by President Lyndon Johnson.
King's opposition to the war placed him well to the left of the American mainstream. The anti-war movement was just gathering steam and it was not yet common to call for a total withdrawal of American troops
King's speech at the Riverside Church was not the first time he criticized the Vietnam War. But it was the first time he made a major policy speech voicing his condemnation. King did not mince words:
If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.
Read the full text of this speech.
By 1967, King was convinced that the nation's struggles with racism and poverty were inextricably linked with the war. Critics within the civil rights movement accused King of sacrificing their domestic aims by speaking out against the Vietnam War. King felt he could not do otherwise. "The war," King told his New York audience, was "doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home." It was sending poor black men "crippled by society" to fight and die for democracy in Southeast Asia when they were still denied basic liberties at home. "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor," King said.
King paid a price for speaking out. An editorial in the April 6, 1967 Washington Post said King "has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies ... and ... an even graver injury to himself." The Post continued, "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy."
Scores of national newspapers echoed these words.
To Vincent Harding, the civil rights activist and historian who helped draft King's Riverside speech, the criticism smacked of racial paternalism. Harding says it was as if these critics said:
"Martin Luther King, you have forgotten who you are, and who we are. You should be very, very happy that we have allowed you to talk critically about race relations in this country. You should be very happy that we've allowed you to talk about Negro things. But MLK, when it comes to the foreign policy of this country, you are not qualified to speak to these issues. These are our issues. Our white establishment [is] in charge of such things, and you are absolutely out of your place to enter into this kind of arena."
Dorothy Cotton, a close, long-time aide to King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says the criticism stung King. "My sense is that Martin was very much pained by the criticism. He really took notice of what people were saying," she says. But she says it didn't hold him back. "My very clear impression is that the criticism made him delve even deeper into the way of nonviolence."
King went on to make numerous speeches opposing the Vietnam War in the last year of his life. On May 17, 1967, King spoke to a large, welcoming crowd at the University of California, Berkeley. "This war has all the dimensions of a Greek tragedy," he said, and went on:
I see so many fine, bright, promising young men taken out of society, taken out of school, and sent away to fight in this unjust war. And what we are saying is we are our boys' best friends because we want them to come home. It's time to come home from Vietnam!
Listen to an extended excerpt:
When talking about the war, King often answered his critics directly by first quoting their doubts.
"Now, Dr. King, don't you think you're going to lose your influence as a leader? And don't you think people who once respected you are going to lose respect for you if you continue to speak out against the war in Vietnam? Isn't it going to hurt your budget?"
King would then give his response, which often began, "I'm very sorry, but you don't know me." Listen to one of King's responses recorded at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles on June 25, 1967:
As King intensified his criticism of the Vietnam War in the last year of his life, the FBI stepped up its campaign of surveillance and harassment against him. Historian David Garrow says King's opposition to the war, along with other public criticism of the Johnson administration, made King a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he had ever been before. "As the fortress mentality of the Johnson White House continued to increase, the FBI's heightened sensitivity to political dissent aimed at the policies of the Johnson administration went hand in hand," Garrow says.
King insisted his criticism of the United States stemmed from love, not hate. He wanted to reform American government, not overthrow it. Speaking to parishioners at Victory Baptist Church, King said, "Something's wrong" with America. "And somebody's got to have the nerve, however difficult it is, to say, 'America, I love you so much that I'm going to tell you when you're wrong.'"
Back to King's Last March.