Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most iconic leaders in history. His legacy is widely remembered as a non-violent and forgiveness-based one rooted in Christian faith and ideology.
However, the totality of Dr. King’s activism is often glazed over by mainstream society. Many whitewash King by ascribing to selective amnesia when it comes to the civil rights leader’s more radical views.
Dr. King may have had a dream of living in racial harmony, but he was also an outspoken critic of capitalism, America’s hypocrisy and self-appointed status as the world’s moral authority and the Vietnam War.
Some either forget or have never known that even the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) criticized King for railing against the Vietnam War, its budget and the overall military-industrial complex.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence.” According to a report by Socialist Worker, thousands turned out to hear King speak at Riverside Church in New York.
He held no punches criticizing the Vietnam War, America’s role in it and how it undermined the civil and economic rights movements. King saw the war as an unnecessary drain on America’s resources that would better serve the poor.
“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,” King said in the speech.
“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,” King continued. “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.”
King’s critics felt he was incorrectly conflating the civil rights movement with war efforts and said he should just stick to preaching. He said many of his closest advisors cautioned him against speaking out, fearing it would damage the relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who’d passed major civil rights legislation.
The NAACP was among them. According to an encyclopedia entry by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, King was also criticized by the New York Times, Washington Post and a total of 168 newspapers overall. The Post attacked King as one who “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.”
In an article on Research Gate titled “NAACP support of the Vietnam War: 1963-1969,” the abstract states the organization’s then President Roy Wilkins “provided strong support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy in Vietnam.”
Wilkins reportedly banned criticism of the war efforts by NAACP brass. “Local NAACP officials were asked not to participate in anti-war demonstrations to avoid potential conflicts of interest between their personal views against the war and their roles as officers of the NAACP,” the abstract states.
After King gave his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech, Wilkins said, “Civil rights groups do not have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”
King, however, believed that silence was a betrayal so he vehemently spoke against the war anyway. “Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam,” King said.
During his speech, King expressed his concern for both the Vietnamese people, particularly children and American soldiers. He said the cause of the war was built on a lie and called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
“At this point, I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called ‘enemy,’ I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else,” King said.
“For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved,” King continued. “Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
Dr. King also addressed the hypocrisy of America sending Black soldiers to fight alongside white ones in Vietnam but refusing to offer them the same dignity of equality in American society.
“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,” King said. “And 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. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
The day after King delivered the speech, he was widely denounced by a total of 168 newspapers and many former supporters – Black and white liberals alike. He was also disinvited from the White House by Johnson, who reportedly called him a “n*gger preacher,” and civil rights organizations distanced themselves from him.
To this day, King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech is his most suppressed by mainstream media.