Day 7 of our Lenten Journey with Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard from Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
From Tavis Smiley, in an interview on NPR, March 30, 2010:
I’ve always argued that Dr. King is the greatest American we’ve ever produced. That’s my own personal assessment. But certainly one of the greatest orators of our time. And so I think most Americans know the “I Have A Dream” speech. A few other Americans know, of course, the “Mountaintop” speech given the night before he’s assassinated in Memphis. But most Americans, I think, do not know this speech, “Beyond Vietnam.”
It was the most controversial speech he ever gave. It was the speech he labored over the most. He rarely gave speeches from a text. This speech was written and basically read word for word so that they could have a copy to give to mainstream newspapers across the country for their consideration, because King did not want to be misquoted or misunderstood, although that didn’t work. But it ends up being the most controversial speech. After he gives it, 168 major newspapers the next day denounce him. The New York Times calls it wasteful and self-defeating. The Washington Post says he has done a discredit to himself, to his people, to his country. He would no longer be respected. And that’s just the Times and the Post.
Lyndon Johnson disinvites him to the White House. It basically ruined their working relationship. And the last poll taken in his life by Harris found that nearly three quarters of the American people had turned against Martin on this issue, and 55 percent of his own people, black folk, had turned against him. So this was a huge, huge speech that got Martin King in more trouble than anything he had ever said or done.
He’d wanted to give it two years earlier and had attempted a dry run at this speech. The problem was that practically everyone in his inner circle—not all, there was James Bevel and a couple of others—but practically everyone in his inner circle advised him strongly not to give this speech.
One of his great advisers and great admirers, Stanley Levison, who was always with Dr. King in his corner, was against Martin giving this speech. So practically everybody in his inner circle was against him giving it: one, because they knew the kind of pushback he was going to get. And secondly, so many civil rights leaders were opposed to him giving it because LBJ had been the best president to black people on civil rights. He passed the Voting Rights Act. He passed the Civil Rights Act. And so the question was, “Martin, why would you antagonize the president who has been our friend?”
…Keep in mind now that 1967 is the same year that Muhammad Ali, the world champion, decides to not accept that draft to go and fight in Vietnam. So ‘67 is really, really a hot year here around this particular issue…And what really got him to the point of figuring that he really, really had to address this again back to the children, he couldn’t say to young folks in this country who were being denied, that they should engage nonviolence as a philosophy when he saw the children, when he saw these pictures of these Vietnamese children being bombed and the impact – the effect that napalm was having on their bodies. When he saw those pictures, there’s a very famous picture that we all know of a Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets who had just been, you know, had been victimized as had her village by these napalm attacks. Those pictures turned Dr. King’s stomach. And it was on that occasion that he said, “I have to speak out about this.” And so he does in New York City.
When you read the speech, if you replace the word Vietnam, every time it pops up, with the word Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, it will blow your mind at how King could really stand up and give that same speech and just replace “Vietnam” with “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”