History Mini-Lesson of the Moment Vol. 8: The American Government v. Martin Luther King Jr.
For all of the events in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved in his lifetime, his influence on anti-Vietnam sentiment is perhaps one of his more unknown achievements. To many Americans who had supported King during his fight for black civil rights, his outspokenness in condemning American actions in Vietnam was alarming.
Yet, King did not really have a choice. Supporting the war would have been contradictory to his message that he had been pushing for two decades.
While he initially was quiet on American involvement in Vietnam - particularly while support for intervention was still high - King spoke on the war in a unforgettably powerful 1967 speech given in New York City:
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. 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 the 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. …
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 never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor. …
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 asked - and rightly so - what about Vietnam? They asked 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 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 today - my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
King felt that he had no choice but to speak out publicly against the war, particularly when young black men were pointing out the hypocrisy of King’s condemnation of their violent methods, despite his never speaking out against the war.
Examining King’s rise from preacher to a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement to an unquestionable political force has led to an enormous amount of historical interpretations of King’s role in American history. One historian observed: “Many have argued that the movement created King and other leaders, not the reverse.”
However it came to be, King was a political and social force and the U.S. government had people determined to have him labeled in the public eye as a communist. When this failed to ruin his reputation, government officials, in something akin to our modern day paparazzi-loving media, tried popularizing the idea of King living a decadent and adulterous lifestyle so that he might lose the favor of the American people.
In Nick Kotz’s Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, Kotz talked about how the FBI was not above using the method of destroying a person’s public image to meet to interests, particularly that of a man as dangerous to the status quo as King was.
Kotz provided an example of the FBI’s assistant director of intelligence who, abiding to J. Edgar Hoover’s desperate pleas for action against King, would have women make phone calls to King’s wife posing as mistresses and even sending an anonymous letter to King stating, in part:
King, Look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I’m sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God… Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. … But you are done. Your “honorary degrees,” your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards with not save you. King, I repeat you are done. …
King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do. … You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
The anonymous letter sent by the FBI was also accompanied by tape recordings. It was opened by King’s wife who was left, as Kotz’s described it, “horrified” by what she heard - as the FBI has expected. King believed that they were trying to drive him to suicide, and indeed he was outraged and “devastated” by the anonymous allegations, despite being (correctly) convinced that it was the FBI who had sent this anonymous package.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lasting influence cannot be denied. King had a mutually appealing, but sometimes quietly combative relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was even King, Kotz alleged, who directly convinced Johnson to appoint the first African American cabinet member in a private phone conversation. The two tactically used each other to help push their agendas, even if King was never really sure of President Johnson’s true motives.
King was precise and deliberate in his manipulation of the media for the purpose of his many causes. He used this technique after his arrest in the peaceful Selma protests where citizens were willfully marching to purposely be arrested by the hundreds and refuse bail. In writing his “Letter from the Selma Jail,” which was published by the New York Times, Kotz described how it was written after King had already posted bail, and his aides, trying to scramble for an excuse so as not to infuriate people with the misleading title, said he had only just posted bail to have a meeting with President Johnson. Since there had been no such meeting planned, the aides scrambled again to try and set up such a meeting which left Johnson furious and, Kotz alleged, shouting to his aides: “Where the hell does [King] get off inviting himself to the White House?”
In his essay “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Spirit of Leadership,” David J. Garrow described King as the “reluctant leader” whose rise began when he was “drafted” to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association. A young and doubtful King only slowly gained confidence in his leadership abilities before having a midnight “spiritual transformation,” as King himself described it.
King’s perception of his role as an American leader was continuously evolving. Garrow believed that understanding what King felt his role was is “really more crucial than anything else … [in] comprehending the kind of leadership … [he] gave to the American black freedom struggle.”
It was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Garrow argued, that gave King “a fundamental growth in … [his] own sense of mission and in his willingness to accept a prophetic role.”
It was not long after this that, breaking away from his usual cooperation with President Lyndon B. Johnson, King decided to take on one of his most significant and controversial issues: the Vietnam War.
This led to a fragmentation in King’s following and support and some media began joining in on the attempt to shatter his image as an effective Civil Rights Movement leader. Yet, as history would demonstrate, King’s legacy has outlived the numerous smear campaigns orchestrated by the government, the media, and his enemies.
By the early 80s, there was a movement to have a federal holiday recognizing the achievements of King. For a petition to Congress, over six million signatures were collected, according to The Nation magazine, the largest petition ever in U.S. history.
Two Republican senators from North Carolina - Jesse Helms and John Porter East - were vocal in their criticism of such a holiday. Helms submitted a document to Congress that was hundreds of pages attempting to tie King to Marxism and communism and highlighting King’s views on the Vietnam War.
On November 2, 1983, fifteen years after his death, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan did so reluctantly - citing the costs incurred by a federal holiday - but the law passed with a veto-proof majority.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day would first be observed on January 20, 1986.
- Vol. 1: The Emerald Gem: Bare-Knuckle Boxing in 19th Century England
- Vol. 2: Roosevelt’s List: The Japanese-American Concentration Camps
- Vol. 3: Two if by Sealand
- Vol. 4: Robert Owen: Social Reformer
- Vol. 5: Martin Luther was a Dick
- Vol. 6: Stokely Carmichael
- Vol. 7: Political Dueling
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