Martin Luther King, Jr. and Vietnam

18 Jan

Excerpts of a Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967.

For Martin Luther King Day, January 21, 2013, we look back to one of his most powerful speeches. Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke out against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death. In the last years of his life, King began to challenge other injustices beyond segregation. He took on poverty with his Poor People’s Campaign, he was against the War in Vietnam, and in his anti-war speeches he explicitly drew connections between racism, poverty, and militarism.

These speeches were not popular at the time. Many in King’s inner circle advised him not to speak out against the war. It was not a popular opinion and they felt it would damage his relationship with President Johnson who had supported civil rights legislation and the movement. As predicted the reaction to his initial speech on April 4 was almost entirely negative in the media and it did alienate him from President Johnson, who never invited him to the White House again. An article published in Life magazine called the speech, “”demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” (Robbins, Mary Susannah (2007). Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists).

Despite these reactions, King felt that he should continue to extend his philosophy of nonviolence beyond the aims and goals of the civil rights movement into world politics. The speech above was given a few weeks after King’s first public statement against the war on April 30 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In his interview for Eyes on the Prize II Stokely Carmichael talks about how Dr. King invited him to hear him speak  on this day and his reaction to the speech,

It was clear that his philosophy made it impossible for him not to take a stand against the war in Vietnam..The speech against the war in Vietnam is a very beautiful speech. I say one of the reasons why I have a great deal of love and respect for King was his love for the people and consequently his honesty. King was so honest that he could criticize himself publicly. And sometimes if one would listen to him the words he used were very sharp. In the speech on Vietnam, he has a quote, if I remember it correctly, it says, “There is a point where caution can become cowardice.” And here he was speaking about himself because when asked to make a statement on the war in Vietnam, he kept using caution as excuse.

Interview with Stokley Carmichael, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 7, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985.

Although he gained the support of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the issue of Vietnam, he and the organization he founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), lost supporters. In a letter in response to criticism of the speech, King wrote,

I am sorry that my recent speeches on Vietnam has cost us your support. However, I feel that war is no longer, if it ever was, a valid way to solve international problems. Even the negative good served by a war against an evil force such as Hitler can no longer be considered worth the costly risk to mankind, for the ultimate weapons of today mean only the destruction of mankind. Man can no longer afford war. We must find a non-violent way to settle the problems of the world…I do not intend to link the Civil Rights Movement organically to the Peace Movement. The Vietnam Summer Program and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are in no way linked organizationally, I feel, however, that it is not possible For men of good will to segregate their principles For matters of expediency, tactics or any other reason. The presence of two evils requires us to speak out against the two evils.

OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 19, Issue 1

Dr. King continued to speak out against the Vietnam War, racism, and poverty until his assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. For more information on the interviews with Martin Luther King’s colleagues and Coretta Scott King, please contact the Film & Media Archive.


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