“The war is an enemy of the poor to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” These were the thoughts and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concerning black participation in the Vietnam War. This antiwar speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break The Silence” many say is the speech that painted a target on the back of Dr. King.

What Prompted Beyond Vietnam

“Beyond Vietnam” was delivered in April of 1967 and hosted by the antiwar group “Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam”. The speech was given at Riverside Baptist Church in New York, to correct the narrative that Dr. King was a pro-Communist following his antiwar speech in February 1967. According to Dr. King, “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.”

“We are sending the black young men who have 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.” This reflected the thoughts of Dr. King and many of the black population that felt money meant to fight poverty and racism in America were being diverted to the military to fight the war in Vietnam. At the time the speech was given the Vietnam War was in full tilt boogie mode. Blacks made up 11% of the American population, but between the years of 1965-1966 black soldiers accounted for over 20% of the casualties in the Vietnam War. During the period of October 1966 and June 1969 when 246,000 soldiers were recruited as part of Project 100,000, 41% of the 246,000 soldiers were black. Numbers such as these prompted black leaders to protest the war, and President Johnson ordered that black soldiers in combat units be cut back. The results of such cutbacks saw black casualties decrease from 20% to 11.5% by 1969. Of the 7262 black men that died in Vietnam, 6,955 were Army and Marine enlisted men.

A Man Of Vast Knowledge

Dr. King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam was not limited to his domestic viewpoint. He was well-studied in the history of occupation that North Vietnam had experienced. “Beyond Vietnam” spanned the nations involved in Vietnam’s turbulent history starting when Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh overthrew the French and Japanese in 1945. From there Dr. King spoke about America’s initial involvement that came in the form of support for France’s effort to again gain control of the country it once colonized.

As Goes the Present So Goes History

Just as many Americans today have a singular nature with regard to their beliefs, so it was in 1967. Those who thought of Dr. King as a civil rights leader felt it was not his duty to address the nations peace movement. The New York Times published an editorial on April 7, titled “Dr. King’s Error” in which it labeled the two issues “distinct and separate”. The editorial went on to state “The strategy of uniting the peace movement and civil rights could very well be disastrous for both causes.” Members of the NAACP and black journalists alike also criticized Dr. King for commingling civil rights and the peace movement. According to a January 13, 2017 article published by USA Today, titled, “Beyond Vietnam: The MLK Speech That Caused an Uproar” King adviser and speech writer Clarence B. Jones claims that people were saying “you’re a civil rights leader, mind your own business. Talk about what you know about.”

Civil Rights Leader or Social Justice Leader?

At this point, one must ask themselves if Dr. King consider himself as a civil rights leader or a gospel minister that preached about social injustices? Could the title of “civil rights leader” been thrust upon his name? If you ask Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and professor of history, Dr. King did not see himself as a civil rights leader. According to Carson, Rosa Parks recruited King to be a civil rights leader. Carson says that “Had he not been in Montgomery in 1955 for the bus boycott, he would not have become a civil rights leader, he would have become a social gospel minister. He was already that.” As a graduate student in the late 1940’s, Dr. King stated his societal concerns as unemployment and economic insecurities, not race relations.

Mocked for Nonviolent Approach

Regardless of what Dr. King or anyone else saw him as, he was mocked by other black activists for his commitment to a nonviolent peaceful movement. Many felt that the only way to deal with police violence towards blacks was to retaliate with violence. Others felt violence was the only way to deal with a violent government that was guilty of killing thousands in Vietnam.

Whether violent or nonviolent, civil rights leader or social injustices preacher, Dr. King’s speech about the war in Vietnam is proof that he had a world view of injustices around the globe. “Beyond Vietnam” was pushed into the shadows of history only to be overshadowed by his “I Have A Dream” speech. Unlike many movements in America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was far from one-dimensional and we would serve ourselves, our country, and our American history a lot better to acknowledge that fact.

James Cheef