Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

Honoring Dr. Du Bois: Martin Luther King's Most Radical Speech

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

Honoring Dr. Du Bois: Martin Luther King's Most Radical Speech

Article excerpt

Whatever the limitations of King's critique of the war, his leadership on the issue led the SCLC to adopt an anti-war stance on April 13, 1966. SCLC called on the Johnson Administration to "desist from aiding the [South Vietnamese] military junta against the Buddhists, Catholics, and students of Vietnam, whose efforts to democratize their government are more in consonance with our traditions than the policy of the military oligarchy." SCLC said it was time for the U.S. to "seriously consider the wisdom of prompt withdrawal." Johnson ignored the SCLC's advice, encouraged surrogates to attack King, and froze the SCLC leader out of the administration's June 1966 national civil rights conference. (30) As the prospects for a moderate critique of the war that kept within the bounds of the anti-Communist consensus receded, King and his colleagues in the SCLC faced an increasing number of challenges.

Hostility from Hoover's FBI was an old problem and from President Johnson a new one. Johnson's decision to escalate the Vietnam War led him to limit funding of Great Society programs. King viewed this as a tragic turn. Equally compelling, just five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, the first of a series of inner city riots began in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The civil rights movement fragmented over the war, SNCC's advocacy of black power, and how best to respond to the ghetto rebellions. As King led demonstrations for jobs and equal access to housing in Chicago in the summer of 1966 and criticized the war, the majority of white Americans became hostile to him. On September 19, 1966, the U.S. Senate failed to overcome a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, which featured an open housing provision. Conservatives made gains in the November 1966 election, most notably the victory of Ronald Reagan in the California governor's race. (31)

What strategy should King and the SCLC pursue in this complex environment? Moderate African-American leaders and intellectuals pressured King to cease his anti-war advocacy on the grounds that criticism of the Johnson Administration was costing the civil rights movement important allies. On the other hand, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC challenged him to deepen his criticism of the war. SNCC leaders, moreover, disparaged King for his reliance on his charisma to mobilize protests rather than conduct grass roots organizing. They also criticized him for specific failings such as the retreat from an agreed-upon march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in March 1965, and unsatisfactory compromises such as the August 1966 Summit Agreement with Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

However troubled King may have been by these criticisms, it was escalation of the Vietnam War that led him to a new phase of radical action. He began a "stepped up ... condemnation of the war" at a conference sponsored by The Nation magazine on February 25, 1967. "Our country," he charged, was "destroying hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm.... We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation are shaken." At the end of March, King and Benjamin Spock "led a Holy Saturday procession of 8,500 people down State Street to the Chicago Coliseum where King again condemned the war." (32) A week later, King made his most thoroughgoing criticism of the war at the massive Riverside Church in New York.

Sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, his seminal speech before four thousand at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, was a multi-faceted critique that included a detailed history of the Vietnamese struggle for independence and land reform and a condemnation of the destruction by the U.S. of "the family and the village ... their land and their crops." The impact of the war on Americans was devastating as well, King maintained. The war had "eviscerated" the poverty program and the hopes of the poor in the U. …

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