The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of the politicians aligning themselves with King now would balk at his beliefs about American power.

Dr. Martin Luther King delivers a speech calling for an end to fighting in Vietnam in Chicago, Sept. 1, 1967. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
Jan. 20, 2014, midnight

Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. was not just the safe-for-all-polit­ic­al-stripes civil-rights act­iv­ist he is of­ten por­trayed as today. He was nev­er just the “I Have a Dream” speech. He was an an­ti­war, anti-ma­ter­i­al­ist act­iv­ist whose views on Amer­ic­an power would shock many of the same politi­cians who now scramble to sing his praises.

King’s more rad­ic­al world­view came out clearly in a speech to an over­flow crowd of more than 3,000 people at River­side Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. “The re­cent state­ment of your ex­ec­ut­ive com­mit­tee are the sen­ti­ments of my own heart and I found my­self in full ac­cord when I read its open­ing lines: ‘A time comes when si­lence is be­tray­al,’ ” he began. It wasn’t about the civil-rights move­ment — not dir­ectly, at least. “That time has come for us in re­la­tion to Vi­et­nam.”

He con­tin­ued, in a speech called “Bey­ond Vi­et­nam“:

To­night, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF [Na­tion­al Lib­er­a­tion Front] but rather to my fel­low Amer­ic­ans, who, with me, bear the greatest re­spons­ib­il­ity in end­ing a con­flict that has ex­ac­ted a heavy price on both con­tin­ents…. There is at the out­set a very ob­vi­ous and al­most fa­cile con­nec­tion between the war in Vi­et­nam and the struggle I, and oth­ers, have been wa­ging in Amer­ica. A few years ago there was a shin­ing mo­ment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real prom­ise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty pro­gram. There were ex­per­i­ments, hopes, new be­gin­nings. Then came the buildup in Vi­et­nam, and I watched the 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.

Per­haps the more tra­gic re­cog­ni­tion of real­ity took place when it be­came clear to me that the war was do­ing far more than dev­ast­at­ing the hopes of the poor at home. It was send­ing their sons and their broth­ers and their hus­bands to fight and to die in ex­traordin­ar­ily high pro­por­tions re­l­at­ive to the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. We were tak­ing the black young men who had been crippled by our so­ci­ety and send­ing them 8,000 miles away to guar­an­tee liber­ties in South­east Asia which they had not found in south­w­est Geor­gia and East Har­lem. So we have been re­peatedly faced with the cruel irony of watch­ing Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die to­geth­er for a na­tion that has been un­able to seat them to­geth­er in the same schools. So we watch them in bru­tal solid­ar­ity burn­ing the huts of a poor vil­lage, but we real­ize that they would nev­er live on the same block in De­troit. I could not be si­lent in the face of such cruel ma­nip­u­la­tion of the poor.

King also ad­dressed the idea that his ad­vocacy of non­vi­ol­ence at home should ex­tend to the rest of the world:

I knew that I could nev­er again raise my voice against the vi­ol­ence of the op­pressed in the ghet­tos without hav­ing first spoken clearly to the greatest pur­vey­or of vi­ol­ence in the world today—my own gov­ern­ment.

Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. is now hailed by politi­cians of all stripes, in­clud­ing a pres­id­ent who is now de­fend­ing a massive gov­ern­ment spy­ing pro­gram. In his speech an­noun­cing re­forms to the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of data, Obama ex­pli­citly cited MLK, and ac­know­ledged the his­tor­ic­al strain:

I have of­ten re­minded my­self I would not be where I am today were it not for the cour­age of dis­sid­ents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own gov­ern­ment. And as pres­id­ent, a pres­id­ent who looks at in­tel­li­gence every morn­ing, I also can’t help but be re­minded that Amer­ica must be vi­gil­ant in the face of threats.

It’s im­possible to ima­gine any politi­cian today cel­eb­rat­ing King’s full range of be­liefs, or us­ing a fully real­ized King as a way to pro­mote their own. Even the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton it­self was more rad­ic­al than it is of­ten re­membered as be­ing, hav­ing been largely de­signed by A. Philip Ran­dolph, a uni­on lead­er, and Ba­yard Rustin, a gay pa­ci­fist and World War II con­scien­tious ob­ject­or.

The man who said that his dream of equal­ity was “deeply rooted in the Amer­ic­an Dream” also be­lieved the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment, with what he saw as its weapons test­ing in Vi­et­nam, was on par with “the Ger­mans [who] tested out new medi­cine and new tor­tures in the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Europe.” In the same speech, King said that, if U.S. ac­tions were to con­tin­ue, “there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no hon­or­able in­ten­tions in Vi­et­nam.”

The rad­ic­al­ism of the 1967 speech didn’t just ex­tend to Vi­et­nam. King called for the U.S. to “un­der­go a rad­ic­al re­volu­tion of val­ues,” say­ing that “we must rap­idly be­gin the shift from a ‘thing-ori­ented’ so­ci­ety to a ‘per­son-ori­ented’ so­ci­ety.” He con­tin­ued:

When ma­chines and com­puters, profit motives and prop­erty rights are con­sidered more im­port­ant than people, the gi­ant triplets of ra­cism, ma­ter­i­al­ism, and mil­it­ar­ism are in­cap­able of be­ing conquered.

“A na­tion that con­tin­ues year after year to spend more money on mil­it­ary de­fense than on pro­grams of so­cial up­lift is ap­proach­ing spir­itu­al death,” he said.

The speech, and King’s stance on Vi­et­nam more gen­er­ally, were not par­tic­u­larly well re­ceived by ma­jor me­dia out­lets at the time. Time magazine called the speech “dem­agogic slander that soun­ded like a script for Ra­dio Hanoi.” The Wash­ing­ton Post wrote that King had “di­min­ished his use­ful­ness to his cause, his coun­try, his people.” An April 7, 1963, a New York Times ed­it­or­i­al titled “Dr. King’s Er­ror” took a wider view:

By draw­ing [Vi­et­nam and “Negro equal­ity”] to­geth­er, Dr. King has done a dis­ser­vice to both. The mor­al is­sues in Vi­et­nam are less clear-cut than he sug­gests; the polit­ic­al strategy of unit­ing the peace move­ment and the civil-rights move­ment could very well be dis­astrous for both causes.

Dr. King can only ant­ag­on­ize opin­ion in this coun­try in­stead of win­ning re­cruits to the peace move­ment by reck­lessly com­par­ing Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary meth­ods to those of the Nazis test­ing “new medi­cine and new tor­tures in the con­cen­tra­tion camps of Europe.” The facts are harsh, but they do not jus­ti­fy such slander.


As an in­di­vidu­al, Dr. King has the right and even the mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to ex­plore the eth­ic­al im­plic­a­tions of the war in Vi­et­nam, but as one of the most re­spec­ted lead­ers of the civil-rights move­ment he has an equally weighty ob­lig­a­tion to dir­ect that move­ment’s ef­forts in the most con­struct­ive and rel­ev­ant way.

Dr. King ex­pli­citly ad­dressed such ques­tions in his April speech:

Why are you speak­ing about 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.

As he him­self said, King was al­ways more than “I Have a Dream.” His oth­er stances — from eco­nom­ic justice to Vi­et­nam — are just more con­tro­ver­sial. That doesn’t mean that they de­serve to be for­got­ten. The total spec­trum of his be­liefs may not be as easy as “let free­dom ring,” but the full MLK was much lar­ger than the safe-for-every­one ca­ri­ca­ture that is of­ten presen­ted today.

A ver­sion of this story was ori­gin­ally pub­lished on Na­tion­al Journ­al in Au­gust, 2013 for the 50 year an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

What We're Following See More »
Warren Goes After Trump Yet Again
7 hours ago

When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage. 

Congress Passes Chemical Regulations Overhaul
9 hours ago

The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."

GOP Could Double Number of Early Primaries
10 hours ago

"Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over making fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party." Among the possible changes: forbidding independent voters to cast ballots in Republican primaries, and "doubling the number of early states to eight."

Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
12 hours ago

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Sanders Wants a Recount in Kentucky
14 hours ago

Bernie Sanders "signed a letter Tuesday morning requesting a full and complete check and recanvass of the election results in Kentucky ... where he trails Hillary Clinton by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. The Sanders campaign said it has asked the Kentucky secretary of state to have election officials review electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from last week's primary in each of the state's 120 counties.