The Forgotten Martin Luther King: A Radical Anti-War Leftist

The great leader is not the safe-for-all-political stripes hero he is sometimes portrayed as -- and it's hard to imagine even President Obama fully embracing him.
Martin Luther King speaks against the Vietnam War at the University of Minnesota. (Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Luther King Jr. was not just the safe-for-all-political-stripes civil-rights activist he is often portrayed as today. He was never just the "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered 50 years ago Wednesday. He was an anti-war, anti-materialist activist whose views on American power would shock many of the same politicians who are currently scrambling to sing his praises.

King's more radical worldview came out clearly in a speech to an overflow crowd of more than 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967. "The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: 'A time comes when silence is betrayal,'" he began. It wasn't about the civil-rights movement -- not directly, at least. "That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

He continued, in a speech called "Beyond Vietnam":

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF [National Liberation Front] but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.... 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.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. 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.

King also addressed the idea that his advocacy of nonviolence at home should extend to the rest of the world:

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.

Martin Luther King Jr. is being hailed by politicians of all stripes on Wednesday, from a president who is considering military options in Syria to Republicans like Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. Former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., wrote an op-ed for U.S. News and World Report on Wednesday, blaming "liberal progressive Democrats" and abortion for blocking King's vision of equality from becoming a reality. "Dr. King advocated we evaluate the content of one's character," West writes. "However, in 2008 Americans voted for someone as president based upon the color of his skin. In 2012, Americans used the same criteria and made the same choice."

But it's impossible to imagine West, Cuccinelli, or Barack Obama celebrating King's full range of beliefs, or using a fully realized King as a way to promote their own. Even the March on Washington itself was more radical than it is often remembered as being, having been largely designed by A. Philip Randolph, a union leader, and Bayard Rustin, a gay pacifist and World War II conscientious objector.

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Matt Berman is an online editor at National Journal.

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