From Vietnam to Iraq, King to Obama, parallels abound
—Michael E. Miller
New York, March 28, 2008—Exactly one year before his death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. risked everything—his career, the support of black Americans, the civil rights movement itself—to denounce the war in Vietnam.
Speaking at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side on April 4, 1967, he called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and decried the disproportionate number of blacks who had been killed during three years of fighting. But the underlying argument of his speech was simpler still: real change, whether full civil rights for blacks or an end to poverty for all Americans, could not occur until the war ended.
With the United States once again in a foreign war, this time in Iraq, the message is eerily familiar. In fact, King’s effort to link poverty and inequality to the war in Vietnam is almost identical to recent remarks made by Illinois Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
“At a time when we’re on the brink of recession – when neighborhoods have For Sale signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs – ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war,” Obama said in a speech in West Virginia two weeks ago.
“Obama has basically said that it is impossible to spend billions in Iraq and think you have enough money to provide housing and social programs for Americans,” said Manning Marable, history professor at Columbia University. “King’s economic argument against the war was the same” in ’67.
But as the fortieth anniversary of King’s assassination draws near, only a handful of Americans remember what is now known as his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. With race, poverty and war once again at the heart of a national debate and a presidential election, their stories are both sketches of past struggles and glimpses of the future.
Four decades ago, Sarah Cunningham, 82, almost missed King’s now-famous speech.
“I was so nonchalant about the whole thing,” she said after Easter service. “For me, getting to Riverside early meant getting there five minutes beforehand, but on that evening, that was a little too late.”
“The church was packed,” she said. “Luckily I saw an usher I knew and he found us the last seats in the upper balcony.” Cunningham, a retired church writer, still lives near Riverside.
“It was an amazing event,” she said, recalling the energy inside the church on what was a cool, early spring evening. “It was a very moving address, and he did a marvelous job of relating his agenda to getting us out of Vietnam.”
That night marked the first time that King publicly voiced his own opposition to the war, linking U.S. militarism abroad to the trampling of human rights at home. The interfaith group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) organized the event, which began at 8 p.m. For months, CALCAV had urged the U.S. government to end its bombing campaign and begin peace talks with the Northern Vietnamese.
Though King’s speech was the last of four, it quickly became apparent that his would be the most controversial. For months, King had debated with his advisors whether to speak at a large anti-war protest at the United Nations building in New York, scheduled for April 15. According to Richard Fernandez, then CALCAV’s executive director, members of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were worried that his message would be lost among the 20 speeches planned for that day.
King’s advisors, on the other hand, feared that his joining the anti-war campaign would spell disaster for the civil rights movement, already stalled after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, in the eyes of many whites, had resolved the political disenfranchisement of blacks. Many were also worried that King speaking out against the war would divide the SCLC and undermine its legitimacy and access to the White House, Fernandez said.
Finally, King and his advisors agreed that he would give a speech a few days before the UN protest. When King’s top aide, Andrew Young, contacted Fernandez, he suggested the Riverside Church as a venue for the crucial speech.
“I don’t think anybody would have projected the impact it was going to have,” Fernandez said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania. “We got pretty good hostility from the press the morning after.”
Fernandez helped distribute advance copies of the speech to newspapers and radio stations across the country. Unsurprisingly, some of the most biting criticism came from within the civil rights movement. Roy Wilkins, then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, criticized the speech. He argued that “civil rights groups [did not] have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”
In an editorial titled “Dr. King’s Error” published two days after the speech, The New York Times wrote that King had fused “two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, 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 has a lot more friends in 2008 who say they marched with him than he did before he died,” Fernandez said, alluding to the fierce criticism—later withdrawn or forgotten—that King received in the year of anti-war speeches preceding his death.
As George Todd remembers it, much of “Beyond Vietnam” was devoted to explaining that the peace movement and the civil rights movement were one and the same.
“Everybody around him was resisting it, and King said, ‘No, no. It’s the same agenda,’” said Todd, a retired reverend who attends Riverside services.
“A lot of us had been demonstrating against the war, so when we learned that King was going to speak here we all turned out,” he said.
“The speech was electric. When King reached the epiphany at the end, we were all floating,” Todd said, growing emotional.
King’s closing line read: “If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
“He shouted it at us and everyone was roaring,” Todd said. “Those were exciting days.”
That night, in front of more than 2,100 people, King laid out a five-step plan culminating in the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam. Near the end of his speech, however, King broadened his focus, arguing that the United States was “on the wrong side of a world revolution” and had betrayed its ideals for self-interest. Still, King said, he held out hope for a different America—one that could still be a beacon of hope in the world, if only it could end the war and put people before commodities.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” King said. “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”
Forty-one years later, Obama’s call for an end to the war in Iraq and the restoration of America’s image abroad has stirred-up old memories of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
Sarah Cunningham, the retired writer, voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the New York primary but has since come to favor Obama. “Perhaps I see in him something that has gone beyond even Dr. King,” she said. “Obama’s the one who can best help us understand the rest of the world.”
But Obama’s criticism of the war in Iraq comes within a much different context than did King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Today, unlike 1967, a majority of Americans are opposed to the war.
“The idea that a majority of Americans, regardless of race and economic background, could come together around a progressive agenda for peace, that was the core of King’s coalition, and it’s the core of Obama’s campaign today,” said Prof. Marable.
One year to the day after his speech at Riverside, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.