Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped into the famed pulpit at Riverside Church and delivered his speech titled “Causalities of War,” which became better known as the “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Though King had made public pronouncements against America’s military presence in Vietnam as early as 1964, the end of 1966 and beginning of 1967 found King at a loss for how to get the attention of the Johnson administration that the Cold War position on Southeast Asia hurt people at home. When he finally spoke before an antiwar crowd, the civil rights leader appeared to link the two movements. I have written elsewhere that King tried to keep those two pieces separate, but even he knew that his presence at the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam gathering at Riverside on April 4, 1967, and more importantly his presence at the Spring Mobilization against the Vietnam War Rally in NYC two weeks later—April 15—had created the possibility of the connection. David Garrow writes in a New York Times op-ed piece that the fallout of King’s attempt to address the antiwar movement directly was widespread within his own circles.
As I have also noted elsewhere, civil rights historians have had a hard time addressing directly the Vietnam War question and King. In part this problem is one of King’s own making. As soon as he reached out to antiwar activists, he quickly worked to distance the civil rights work from the antiwar work. The Poor People’s Campaign grew out of that strange moment late in 1967 when King continued to speak out against the bombing campaigns in North Vietnam but did not readily embrace the antiwar rallies any more. Another reason, however, is that King had worked so hard to leverage black political strength within Washington, D.C. that when he decided that Johnson’s goals and his own were no longer similar King abandoned the use of the federal government to bring about change. Throughout 1967, he wrote to business owners in industrial cities attempting to advocate on black workers’ behalf. He used the language and tactic of union organizers to bring about employment concessions for workers.
In the book on King and the Vietnam War, I am mentally configuring a twentieth century moment when black activism, which had labored and lobbied hard to convince the federal government that acting on behalf of African Americans was in the best interest of the nation, found the federal government no longer conducive to the cause. Civil and voting rights had given them protection for citizenship rights but not economic advancement. Johnson appeared to say—an approach that has occurred ever since 1965—you have rights now stop complaining. The prophetic tradition within Christianity gave King an outlet to call the nation to repentance. In a nation with military might and technological advantages over the rest of the world, King’s message of turning from the sin of racism, materialism, and militarism looked and sounded odd. His work post-1965 may be the most important in his life and public ministry if we would just pay attention to it.