When Martin Luther King Jr. Spoke Out Against the Vietnam War

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Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply troubled by the Vietnam War for years, but the "Beyond Vietnam" speech was his first major policy statement on the issue. His wife, Coretta Scott King, on the other hand, critiqued the war publicly for years before her husband did. (AFP via Getty Images)

"Why are you speaking about the 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." — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute is marking this coming Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a newly released recording of the most controversial speech he ever gave — against the war in Vietnam.

For years, historians had to muddle through a recording probably made too far away from the pulpit where the civil rights leader spoke. But then the Riverside Church in New York City digitized their audio archives, and found six clean recordings of various speeches King gave at the church from 1961 to 1967.

The other five recordings include: “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” “A Knock at Midnight,” “The Man Who Was a Fool,” and “Transformed Nonconformist.”

A Speech That Took a Stand

But arguably “Beyond Vietnam” was the most famous, and widely denounced, since it came before the Tet Offensive and the massacre at My Lai — which turned public opinion in the U.S. broadly against the war.

King, who anticipated those concerns and addressed them preemptively in his speech, didn't see the cause of civil rights as separate from the cause of peace — for a few reasons.

First, it was clear to him, (and ultimately proven by research) that African American men were dying at disproportionate rates to defend a country that wasn’t doing right by them at home.

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 hardly live on the same block in Chicago.

King also remarked on the way the nation's budget for war abroad gutted its budget at home for struggling Americans.

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 this 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.

But King’s concerns ranged far beyond Vietnam. Speaking with what he called “the fierce urgency of now,” he decried "a deeper malady within the American spirit." Specifically, he saw a series of presidential administrations embroiling themselves in armed conflicts across the globe for the wrong reason, which he defined as corporate profit at the expense of human life.

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

Clayborne Carson, who directs the Stanford Institute, said: "He was concerned less about the war itself. More about what it said about our priorities."

"I think he’s telling us if those resources could be devoted to making American society more just, more democratic, that would mean so much more to the security of the United States than anything that we could do abroad," he added.

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.
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)

Negative Reaction, Even From His Allies

In an editorial titled “Dr. King’s Error,” The New York Times wrote, “There are no simple or easy answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country.”

The Times, like other papers, took issue with King's fusing of the two problems.

"By drawing them 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," the Times wrote.

King was also attacked by civil rights groups, including the NAACP. As reported by The New York Times, the organization's 60-member board voted unanimously to issue a resolution condemning the speech, calling it "a serious tactical mistake."

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"We are, of course, for a just peace. But there already exist dedicated organizations whose No. 1 task is to work for peace, just as our No. 1 job is to work for civil rights," the group said.

"They felt he was doing harm to the movement," Carson said.

But it should have come as no surprise to King's allies that he was deeply troubled by the Vietnam War: He made multiple casual comments in the two years previous to "Beyond Vietnam." His wife, Coretta Scott King, also spoke publicly against the war and was active in Women's Strike for Peace.

"To some degree, he was a latecomer," Carson said.

What prompted King to finally "come out" about his feelings towards the war? A photo essay in Ramparts Extra magazine in early 1967, according to Carson. "He realized at that point that he just had to speak out — simply seeing what napalm does to children."

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