Exactly one year before his assassination, on April 4, 1967, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech that may have helped put a target on his back. That speech, entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break The Silence, was an unequivocal denunciation of America’s involvement in that Southeast Asian conflict.
The speech began conventionally. King thanked his hosts, the antiwar group Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. But he left little doubt about his position when he quoted from the organization’s statement.
“…I found myself in full accord when I read (the statement’s) opening lines: 'A time comes when silence is betrayal,’ “ King told the crowd gathered at Riverside Baptist Church in New York.
He indicated that his commitment to non-violence left him little choice. “…I knew that 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: my own government.”
King had given an antiwar speech in February 1967. But that sentiment was often described as pro-Communist in an America that was in the midst of the Cold War. So King spoke again two months later, to ensure his position was clear.
In the April speech, King carefully laid out the history of the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. He started at 1945, when Vietnam's prime minister Ho Chi Minh overthrew the French and Japanese. He carried his audience through American support for France’s effort to regain its former colony, and for Vietnam’s dictatorial first president Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, assassinated in 1963. Through it all, King noted, America sent more and more soldiers to Vietnam.
"The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. … Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy, " he said.
King also accused increasing military costs of taking money from domestic programs meant to fight poverty and racism. Instead, he said, young black men "crippled by our society" were being sent "eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they have not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."
In the decades since his assassination, the speech has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. His career is almost solely represented by the the last half of the 1963 I Have A Dream speech, delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which King anticipated a world where content of character matter more than skin color.
In 1967, however, Beyond Vietnam ignited an uproar.
In its April 7 editorial “Dr. King’s Error,” The New York Times lambasted King for fusing two problems that are “distinct and separate.”
“The strategy of uniting the peace movement and civil rights could very well be disastrous for both causes,” the paper said. Similar criticism came from the black press as well as from the NAACP.
“He created a firestorm ... of criticism,” said Clarence B. Jones, King’s adviser and the speechwriter who helped shape the iconic Dream speech. Jones is now a diversity professor at the University of San Francisco, and a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute
“People were saying, ‘Well you know you’re a civil rights leader, mind your own business. Talk about what you know about.’”
Martin Luther King Jr. through the years
But King did not see himself as a civil rights leader at all, according to Clayborne Carson, who directs the institute. Carson is also a professor of history at Stanford University.
“…I think Rosa Parks recruited him to be that,” Carson said. “Had he not been in Montgomery in 1955 (for the bus boycott), he would have not become a civil rights leader; he would have certainly become a social gospel minister. He was already that.”
King articulated his commitment to social justice issues while a graduate student at Crozer Theological Seminary in the late 1940s. His stated concerns included unemployment and economic insecurity, not race relations.
King made good on that commitment in 1966, when he joined forces with local Chicago activists to fight for fair housing. But black churches refused to work with him, so he set up headquarters at an integrated West Side church, Warren Avenue Congregational Church.
“I think (the black churches) were scared of the (Richard J.) Daley administration and the political machine,” said Prexy Nesbitt, a long-time activist who worked with King. He now teaches African history at Columbia College in Chicago.
In Chicago, and later in Detroit, King was challenged by younger activists who mocked his insistence on nonviolence at home while American soldiers were killing thousands in Vietnam.
By the time of the Riverside speech, it had taken King two years to become an outspoken critic of the war. Doing so would destroy his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who was widely revered for pushing through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and 1965.
“Had there been some way of carrying on the Vietnam War without having any cost to domestic programs, (King) might have maintained his silence,” Carson said.
The aftermath of the speech and the mounting opposition took a personal toll on King. Nesbitt saw King in 1968 and was struck by his changed demeanor.
“What I saw was a person who was more aware of the world situation, most of all Vietnam, and the forces of mal-intent that were mobilized and mobilizing against him.”
Almost 50 years later, Nesbitt is convinced the speech was the final straw for people who were determined to kill King, who was ultimately shot to death by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
“The racists were saying, ‘That going too far. Now he’s gonna tell us how to run our country. Who does he think he is?’ ” Nesbitt said.
Carson doesn’t think the speech directly caused King’s death. But he thinks it was a factor in a fate that was “already determined.”
“There were a lot people who preferred that (King) be dead," Carson said. "If they wouldn’t bring it about, they certainly weren’t disturbed by it. My feeling is that King would not have survived the ‘60s in any case.”