Vail Daily column: Martin Luther King’s unpopular anti-war protest
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King broke ranks with his closest civil rights advisors and the American public. Speaking in Manhattan from the Riverside Church’s pulpit on the explosive theme, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” King protested the war.
Many Americans were up-in-arms over King’s protest. They branded him a communist sympathizer whose message of peace was impractical and unpatriotic. King didn’t apologize for his unpopular anti-war stance. “I anticipated some of this (reaction against his anti-war protest),” King unflappably replied, “and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
In 1967, most politicians reserved judgment against the Vietnam War, fearing their constituencies might boot them from office. Others rushed to judgment, saying King showed his true colors. They castigated him as a socialist who undermined our soldiers fighting to preserve freedom in Southeast Asia.
Reacting to critics, King used seasoned judgment informed by scripture and conscience. Such judgment is rarely practiced today. Now, opinion polls dictate what politicians and preachers dare say publicly.
While most citizens endorsed the war, King’s heroic stance against the Vietnam War showed uncommon bravery. He practiced what he preached: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’
In April 1967, when King spoke at Riverside Church, public opinion largely supported the Vietnam War. Collegians continued protesting on campuses and cut classes to join marches in Washington. However, most Americans denounced them as draft-dodgers who didn’t want to fight for their country.
American military casualties began to mount prior to King’s address. Still, citizens considered these deaths a small price to ensure that Vietcong saboteurs would not terrorize the West Coast. On March 23, 1967, the Pentagon reported that American deaths increased for the first time over 2,000. In the week prior to King’s anti-war speech, 211 soldiers died protecting liberty, pushing the American death count to 2,092.
British historian Arnold Toynbee articulated anti-war wisdom King accepted but the U.S. government denied. Toynbee judged American victory in Vietnam illusory, “unless the American army is prepared to stay there forever.”
King’s Riverside Church speech gave reasons why most Americans didn’t alter their pro-war endorsement. “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth,” he declared, “men (sic) do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed, as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.”
King moved on. Such heroic resolve exacted a stern price. Critics sullied his reputation and questioned his motives. Colleagues warned that Freedom March contributions would dry up because of the war controversy King’s convictions stirred. Young protest leader Stokely Carmichael questioned out loud about how effective non-violet protest was to secure racial justice, endorsing violent tactics, instead.
Editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times bailed on King’s strategy. They strongly advised that he leave Vietnam alone. “Many who have listened to him with respect will never against accord him the same confidence,” determined the Post. “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”
New York Times’ editors also chided King. Since race relations were mired in controversy, why stir the cauldron against racial reforms by “wasteful and self-defeating” diversions into foreign affairs? Editors reproved King for taking on too many causes too soon, thereby diminishing his punch. His Riverside speech was an ill-fated attempt to fuse “two public problems that are distinct and separate.” The Times predicted King’s opening two fronts — justice in race relations and war — “could very well be disastrous for both causes.”
Today, we lionize King on his national holiday. We forget how his anti-war protest caused his popularity to plummet because most white Americans accused him of being a communist sympathizer.
King didn’t deny the enormous task of convincing the nation of Vietnam’s folly. He appealed to a Hebrew poet who dreamed that God’s justice would level bumpy roads. At the end of his anti-war protest in Riverside Church, King declared, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain’” (Isaiah 40:4).
Martin Luther King Jr. enjoys greater popularity after death than during his life. He neither shied from moral judgment nor rushed into it. His judgment about the Vietnam War exacted terrible costs to his credibility and popularity. But it was the right thing to do.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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