The last year of Dr. King’s life remains the most underappreciated and compelling aspect of his public career. For Americans who have been presented a sanitized version of his public career, where he has literally been frozen in time on Aug. 28, 1963 giving his “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King’s activities during the final year of his life appear startling, if not unreal.
The last year of his life revealed that he was truly a man of principle who possessed the courage to do what he felt he had to do, even though he was widely criticized for his beliefs during this period.
One of the readily apparent aspects of Dr. King’s public life was that he was an outstanding orator. His immortal, “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington, epitomizes this aspect of his skill-set. Yet, his April 4, 1967 presentation delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City entitled “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence,” may have actually been more historically significant. This latter speech clearly demonstrated that Dr. King, while still a “dreamer,” was simultaneously a fully awake outspoken critic of how the poor were treated in the richest country in the world.
“Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence” also gave ammunition to his critics, such as the FBI, who believed that Dr. King was a dangerous Communist sympathizer.
As David J. Garrow asserted in his classic book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI suspected King of being a Communist, particurlary after his “I Have a Dream” speech. Most persons today view that presentation as an eloquent and uplifting call for racial cooperation and harmony. Yet, William C. Sullivan, the FBI’s Assistant Director, had a far more negative assessment. After the speech, Sullivan, according to David J. Garrow’s research, declared “We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
This was part of the historical backdrop associated with Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 speech given at Riverside Church. After describing this facility as a “magnificent house of worship,” he went on to say that his motivation for speaking was “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Moreover, as “a preacher by calling,” Dr. King outlined a variety of reasons why Vietnam entered into “the field of my moral vision.”
First and foremost, he lamented how the country’s commitment to fighting a “War on Poverty” soon disappeared in favor of escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. As Rev. Dr. King specifically noted:
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.
Besides viewing the escalating Vietnam War as detrimental to the country’s anti-poverty agenda, Dr. King further lamented how America’s poor were disproportionately represented among the troops being sent to Southeast Asia. Moreover, he offered the following elaborations in this regard:
We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And…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 at the same schools.
Based upon these realities, King told the audience at the Riverside Church that “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
Along with King’s concern that the military buildup in Vietnam hurt America’s poor in a variety of ways, he also broke his silence regarding this issue based upon a deeper, philosophical, consideration. After citing the increase in urban violence and unrest during the preceding three summers, Dr. King continued:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask—and rightfully so—what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.
Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 comments concerning his opposition to the Vietnam War also included a reference to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. After acknowledging how receiving the Nobel Peace Prize contributed to his antiwar mindset, King also clarified how his “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ” brought him to Riverside’s pulpit:
To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking out against the war. Can it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men—for Communist and capitalist, their children and ours, for Black and for White, for revolutionary and conservative?
Although Rev. King believed that his remarks provided a morals-based rationale for his opposition to the Vietnam War, a number of publications, organizations, and individuals subsequently attacked him for his pronouncements.
For instance, an April 6, 1967 editorial in The Washington Post declared that:
[King] has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies…and even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people. And that is a great tragedy.
any attempt to merge the civil rights and peace movements as “a serious tactical mistake.” Although this text did not mention Dr. King by name, its’ context was clear. In fact, the New York Times, in its related story, featured a headline reading “NAACP Decries Stand of Dr. King on Vietnam.” Moreover, a couple days later, U.N. Undersecretary-General Ralph Bunche held a press conference where he stated that, as a member of the NAACP Board, he had pushed for this resolution. In addition, Bunche declared that King could not be both a civil rights leader and an antiwar spokesman; he needed give up one role or the other.
In a retrospective assessment of Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 speech, chief aide Rev. Andrew Young offered the following analysis while being interviewed for the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize:
Martin gave a brilliant rationale for his position on the War in Vietnam. And as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, we expected people to take it seriously and not to agree with it but to disagree with certain specifics. We didn’t get that. We got instead, an emotional outburst attacking his right to have an opinion. It was almost, you know, “Nigger, you ought to stay in your place.”
As David J. Garrow asserted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council,” Rev. King pledged not to be daunted by the unpopularity of his stand. Moreover, Dr. King felt even more confident about the path he had taken when Ralph Bunche later privately contacted King to not only apologize for his public attack, but to state his complete agreement with King’s views on the Vietnam War, if not his way of expressing them. King, according to Garrow, subsequently lamented that Bunche did not have the courage to state his honest opinion in public.
Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the last year of his life, paid a huge political price for being courageous, the evidence suggests that his faith helped him to transcend concern about this. For instance, during an April 9, 1967 sermon in Chicago, he broke away from his prepared text and declared:
I don’t want a long funeral. In fact, I don’t need a eulogy of more than one or two minutes…. I hope that I will live so well with the rest of my days. I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I’m not concerned about that. But I hope I can live so well that the preacher can get up and say he was faithful. That’s all, that’s enough. That’s the sermon I’d like to hear. “Well done thy good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful; you’ve been concerned about others”….That’s where I want to go from this point on, the rest of my days. “He who is the greatest among you shall be your servant.” I want to be a servant. I want to be a witness for my Lord, do something for others.
Dr. King’s quest to do something for others, coupled with his growing concern about America’s poor, subsequently coalesced in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Poor People’s Campaign” announced in December 1967. This initiative carried even greater significance, based upon occurrences that summer. In what has been called “the long hot summer” of 1967, 176 urban racial disturbances took place in the U.S., including in Wichita.
During the first day of a late November SCLC staff retreat, where the “Poor People’s Campaign” initiative was conceived, Dr. King told his colleagues:
The decade of 1955 to 1965, with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone underestimated the amount of rage Negroes were suppressing, and the amount of bigotry the White majority was disguising. …We must fashion new tactics which do not count on government good will, but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice. Among the goals must be a guaranteed annual income and the elimination of slums. Nonviolence must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods. Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level…mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.
As David J. Garrow discussed in “Bearing The Cross,” during the second day of the SCLC retreat, Andrew Young, following up on the previous day’s discussion, suggested using such tactics as lying on highways, blocking doors at government offices, and mass school boycotts. For his part, Dr. King agreed and further noted that SCLC’s protests ought to be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention getting as the riots without destroying life and property.” Moreover, the ultimate envisioned instance of mass, disruptive, civil disobedience would be a second March on Washington in early April 1968.
As King told SCLC staffers, the purpose of the second March would not be to have a beautiful day, but to literally occupy the city until the Johnson Administration altered both its domestic and foreign policies.
On Dec. 4, 1967, Dr. King hosted a press conference in Atlanta where he officially announced SCLC’s plans to “lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington DC next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.” His opening statement also included the following:
We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail we accept it willingly for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination…This will be no mere one-day march in Washington but a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.
The transcript from this press conference includes the following question posed to Dr. King by a reporter:
Dr. King, it seems from what you’ve said here that this movement seems to have a more militant tone about it. Would you say that this is going to be a more militant movement than ever before?
King replied by asserting:
I would say that this will be a move that will be consciously designed to develop massive dislocation. I think this is absolutely necessary at this point. It will be massive dislocation without destroying life or property and we’ve found through our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve the problem. We’ve got to massively confront the power structure. So this is a move to dramatize the situation, channelize the very legitimate and understandable rage of the ghetto and we know we can’t do it with something weak. It has to be something strong, dramatic, and attention-getting.
As we know, on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet kept Dr. King from leading America’s poor to the nation’s capital — in a dramatic campaign — to demand economic justice.
Rev. Dr. King’s last sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral on Sun., March 31, 1968 clearly conveyed the religious underpinnings of his perceived radicalism. Considering he is often portrayed as a “dreamer,” it is ironic that this presentation was entitled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.”
Dr. King’s remarks included the following depiction of what would transpire when America had to face the “God of History”:
One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will have to talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate ocean depths. We brought into being many things with our scientific and technological power. It seems clear that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it to the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.”
In assessing the final year of Dr. King’s life, it appears clear that, among other things, he sought a positive outcome when he, himself, had to stand before the