Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.'s Fight Against Poverty and the Vietnam War

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Martin Luther King Jr. at Stanford on April 14, 1967. The University is now home to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, which has released recently discovered recordings of his speeches at Riverside Church in New York City. (Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries)

Martin Luther King Jr.'s stands on human rights issues including poverty were not as well known as his civil rights issues, but have been well worth noting in remembrance of him, an expert on King's achievements told KQED.

Clayborn Carson, Stanford history professor and founding director of the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, said King visited the San Francisco Bay Area numerous times to speak on human rights issues in the last years of his life.

Since 1985, when he was chosen by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish the papers of her late husband, Carson has devoted most of his professional life to the study of King and the movements he inspired. The King Papers Project has produced seven volumes, and Carson has edited four additional books on King.

Carson said King was always a social gospel minister, concerned with human rights as much as civil rights. "He felt that basic citizenship rights were essential, but not sufficient," said Carson. "Education, health care, employment: Those are basic concerns of most people."

King's visits to UC Berkeley and San Francisco are well known but less so his 1967 talk at Stanford, entitled "The Other America.” His speech focused primarily on the evils of systemic racism and  economic inequality. "Millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity, but tragically and unfortunately there is another America," said King. "This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair," he told a rapt audience of students and faculty.


While the Vietnam War was not the main subject of this speech, he had been talking about the conflict in others across the county, and the long-time progressive could not help but turn to it again as he neared the end of his remarks. “I submit, if we spend $35 billion a year to fight an ill-considered war in Vietnam and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, our nation can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth," said King.

Carson said King saw the Vietnam War as a costly distraction, both in terms of human lives and resources that could have been devoted to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. "When we look back, I think King thought that was the great mistake of the 1960s, not focusing on these kinds of issues that are still troubling us now," Carson said.

King also showed up to support others protesting the Vietnam War, including local folk singer Joan Baez. She was a vocal critic of the war and the draft, and she was arrested with dozens of others in 1967 for blocking the entrance to an armed forces induction center in Oakland.

King went to visit her in jail and made a few extemporaneous remarks to a crowd of her supporters outside.

"You know, when you go to jail for a righteous cause, you can accept the inconveniences of jail with a kind of innocence of calm and an inner sense of peace," said King. "I want to make it very clear that I'm going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action, to oppose that abominable evil unjust war in Vietnam."

King added: "People ask me from time to time, aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights? They go on to say the two issues ought not to be mixed. My only answer is I have been working too long and too hard now to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns."

He would go on mixing his moral concerns until he was assassinated a few months later in Memphis, Tennessee.