“MLK: A Call to Conscience” – Part 2

Tavis continues his conversations with some of Dr. King’s friends and with scholars who study his legacy.

This installment of Tavis Smiley Reports explores the relevance of Dr. King's anti-war position to the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor bestowed upon both King and President Obama. This special broadcast was based on dozens of hours of interviews with King’s friends and with scholars who study his legacy, including: Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute at Stanford University; and Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning King historian.


Tavis: Tonight we bring you Part 2 of our special “MLK: A Call to Conscience.”  Dr. King’s Vietnam speech in 1967 crystallized his views on nonviolence and the impact war has on the least among us.  Tonight, more on the lasting legacy of King’s anti-war views and the lessons we can all learn about the cost of war even today.

Dr. King was well aware that a younger generation of leaders was calling nonviolence obsolete.  His good friend, Stokely Carmichael, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, coined a term that would for a while redefine the movement.

Interviewer: “What do you mean when you shout ‘Black Power’ to these people back here?”

Stokely Carmichael: “I mean that the only way that Black people in Mississippi will create an attitude where they will not be shot down like pigs, where they will not be shot down like dogs, is when they get the power where they constitute a majority in counties to institute justice.”

Tavis: Dr. King understood their anger, but could not agree to their tactics.  As many cities erupted with violence and that the mainstream media seized on what they called urban riots, Dr. King sought to reach out to those who said that he had lost touch with his times.

Harry Belafonte remembers the aftermath of one such meeting.

Harry Belafonte: I just said to him, “What troubles you, Martin?”  He says, “Well, I just came from that meeting with the young people in Newark and they said much that challenged me.  They made great justification for why they saw violence as an important tool to their liberation.

My task was to take the truths that they were experiencing, the pain they were experiencing, and say there is another way.  When I left, I felt that I had not convinced them, that I had not gotten to them in the way which I would have loved to have gotten to them.”

Tavis: Riverside Church was one of the most famed houses of worship in the country.  Completed in 1929 with funds from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the gothic edifice attracted wealthy and influential individuals from all walks of life.

Dr. King had preached here many times; however, even with his tradition of liberalism, the Riverside Church in 1967 was not without de facto segregation.  African Americans were not welcome at the front of the church.  Gwendolyn Shepherd, a childhood friend of the man she called M.L., was in the pews that night.

Gwendolyn Shepherd: They didn’t want me sitting on the pew.  I said, “I sit here or he and I both will leave.”  That’s how I used to get to sit wherever I wanted to when he spoke.

Tavis: We all know that literally one year to the day after he speaks here in your church, April 4, 1967, he’s shot dead.  I raise that to ask whether or not, to the best of your recollection, that was the last time you saw him speak in person here at Riverside.

Shepherd: That is right.

Tavis: It is true.

Shepherd: That is true.

Tavis: Beyond Vietnam was a long speech, more than 45 minutes.  When Dr. King finished, the crowd at Riverside Church erupted in sustained applause.  But that support was short-lived.

By morning, the political fallout was intense and far-reaching.  The already strained relationship between President Johnson and Dr. King became fractured beyond repair.

Donations to King’s organization, SCLC, began to dry up and the mainstream press denounced him in no uncertain terms, charging that as a civil rights leader he wasn’t qualified to evaluate U.S. foreign policy.

Is there anything that Dr. King and his handlers, his organizers, could have done differently on that night beyond the words that he uttered that might have changed the way he was treated, maltreated, the next day?  Or was the place irrelevant?  The audience irrelevant and they just rest on his words?  And wherever he uttered that speech, he would have caught the same hell the next day?

Taylor Branch: I think so.  I think he would have caught the same firestorm against him.  Because what they said was not only we don’t like your message, we’re in the middle of a war and we don’t want to hear somebody say that we’re violent, but it also said you’re a civil rights leader.  You’re a Black guy.  Stick to what you know and leave the war to us.

It united “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post,” a war critic and a war supporter.  They both said he’ll never be respected again.  Shut up and go back to talking about we shall overcome.

Tavis: “The Washington Post” said this: Many who listen to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.  He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.

“The New York Times” claimed the fusion of the two issues could very well be disastrous for both causes.

But as sharp as those assessments were, they probably did not sting as much as the criticism that came from many of Dr. King’s colleagues within the civil rights movement itself.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.: Dr. King saw the world through a door, not through a keyhole.  The civil rights leaders were so much more limited and they attacked him along with the major media and the White House and the Democratic Party by saying that you were taking the attention away from civil rights by focusing on the war in Vietnam.  He said the reality is, the war on poverty and money is going to the war in Vietnam.

Marian Wright Edelman: I remember one day just because they were all attacking him was he’s speaking about something he doesn’t know anything about or is not our business as if he sort of was not a citizen and it wasn’t our children who were dying in Vietnam killing other peoples’ children.

Tavis: You get the sense that they were angered by this Negro getting out of his lane.  Foreign policy is not the lane, Dr. King, that we have allowed you or want you to run in, and that comes through pretty clear to me, at least in my reading of it.  Did you read the same thing?

Belafonte: With one definition.

Tavis: Okay.

Belafonte: If Dr. King had stepped into the foreign policy issue and said I approve of all that you do, he’d have been exalted as a man of vision who leads his people in truth and he’s married to the best in American political goals.

No, what he did was to do the unthinkable and the undesirable as a Black man, first of all, to reveal that he had the capacity to think and to do analysis and could read history and could speak to global issues with great clarity and he could also take on the establishment and say, “Shame on you.”

Dr. Martin Luther King: “As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission.”

Belafonte: Let me just say this about Vietnam and his speech.  I don’t think any people have known a terror greater than have Black people known in America throughout a number of centuries.  This is not to play heads up.  It is not to say whose suffering was the greatest.

This is not to dismiss what took place at Dachau and Auschwitz and what the Nazis did and what the Japanese did in forced marching.  This is not about that.  This is about the fact that Dr. King understood terror.  He lived with it every day.

His home was bombed.  It was no Twin Towers, but it was a bomb.  His house was wrecked and his wife and his children’s lives were in jeopardy.  He had been, on many occasions, driven off the road.  People tried to do things to him.  He looked around him and he saw a lot of murder.  Terror is terror.

Tavis: He was stabbed here in New York.

Belafonte: Yes, stabbed here in New York in Harlem.  So violence and terrorism was not an abstract.  For anyone to suggest that there is some current design on terror that would overwhelm Dr. King and not have him philosophically ready to encounter a debate on it is somewhat specious.

Phyllis Bennis: I don’t think the issue is just being a pacifist.  That’s not what Dr. King called on everyone to be.  He called on everyone to put justice at the Center and he said that violence does not create justice.

Tavis: King’s friend and fellow activist Tony Bennett was one of the first non-African Americans to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement.  He had seen the horrors of combat up close as a soldier during World War II.

Tony Bennett: I don’t think there’s ever been a good war, never been one.  It’s the height of ignorance.  I mean, it’s legalized murder.  You’re killing somebody and then your mother teaches you to believe in God and then, at 17, they say now we’re gonna show you how to kill.  It’s too schizophrenic.  It doesn’t make sense.  We should believe in God, believe in being a human being, and giving to the earth instead of taking from it.

Tavis: The fallout from “Beyond Vietnam” continued to plague Dr. King in the last year of his life.

Jackson: He had the strength of his faith because he would often go to the trenches and they would not be full.  Witnesses would not show up, would not open doors to their churches.  The Democratic Party almost en masse turned against him.  Blacks who worked for the White House turned again him.

So it was a lonesome journey.  But the more he became accustomed to it, he gained strength even in his solitary role because he felt that he was right and ultimately that the right would prevail.  And that became his ultimate strength because he said I’d rather live with my conscience than live with the crown.  Leaders at their best, he said, cannot follow opinion polls.  They must mold opinion.

Tavis: When Dr. King was assassinated on that balcony in Memphis, nearly three-quarters of Americans disapproved of his stance against the Vietnam War.  Many within the African American community also criticized King.  To young people like those in Newark, King at 38 was already a relic.  They thought he’d gone soft.  The Black Power movement was coming on.  In the last year of his life, this question remains: who was on Martin’s side?

Cornel West: We know when he was shot down, they had 72% disapproval ratings in the country, 55% disapproval ratings in the Black America.  What they saw was Martin Luther King, Jr. bearing witness, being a sermon, living his life, a committed life.

That’s what he wanted to leave behind, a committed life to justice which pitted him against the same Johnson administration who had courageously supported the Black Freedom movement against white supremacist terror in the South, the civil rights movement against Jim Crow in the South.

So, again, you see the connection of thought and action, theory and practice, concept and deed, a witness bearer as well as a truth teller.  Of course, we got to keep in mind that this great truth teller was called the most notorious liar by the FBI.

Tavis: And the most dangerous man in America.

West: That kind of love is dangerous.  When you love poor people that much, working people that much, you’re gonna be dangerous to the powers that be.

Tavis: While King’s faith never wavered in the last months of his life, those closest to him were well aware of his bouts of depression.

Taylor Branch: Well, he was definitely getting lonelier.  Remember, from the pinnacle of this great movement in Selma that brought people from all over the country down there to march and journalists from all over the world to crusade for the voting rights act, that had only been a couple of years before the movement had splintered over whether he should go north, the movement had splintered over Black Power.

Then he had to take on the war and finally he had to take on the poor peoples’ campaign.  By the time he did that, he was very, very isolated and lonely and the bouts of depression continued.  I think they became stronger and, as they became stronger, I think he was driven more by conscience to make more of a witness.

Tavis: Jesse Jackson remembers a crucial meeting of family and friends.

Jackson: I was at the meeting early one Saturday morning.  He came in the meeting and said, “I’ve had a migraine headache for about three days and I’ve thought about quitting.  Maybe I’ve done as much as I can do in 13 years.  We’ve covered the back of the bus, we have public accommodations, we have the right to vote.  My Democratic friends, even some of my Morehouse classmates have turned against me.  I’ve felt real down, I’ve felt depressed.  Maybe I should quit.”

Everybody got real quiet.  But then he said, “But, you know, it’s like down in Georgia.  We can turn a minus into a plus.  We got to go on to Memphis.”  He preached himself out of a depression.  He went from I should consider quitting, but we have to go on, on to Memphis.

I took copious notes.  He was much like Jesus, let this cup pass from me.  Maybe I’ve done the best I could do.  I’ve walked the water, I’ve healed the sick, I’ve tried to do my Father’s will and I’m not understood even by my own family members.  Then as he prayed, the disciples slept.  Then not my will, but Thine be done.

I saw him walk out of that depression with that sense of go-ahead because it was a very tough time because he was in real isolation because the road to ultimate change, that is that tension between politician and prophet.  That is a real tension.

Tavis: All of this begs the question, if Martin King were alive today, would his unrelenting insistence that there is a firm line between right and wrong find a willing audience?  Or would his insistence on holding America’s feet to a moral fire be seen as hubris?

Clayborne Carson: I’ve wondered sometimes going to King Holiday celebrations whether King would be invited.  I wonder sometimes going to the big mega churches who might have a Martin Luther King celebration, well, Martin Luther King shows up and says I’d kind of like to speak at my celebration.

They’d ask, well, what are you gonna say?  Well, I’m gonna speak out against poverty and injustice and the wars that are going on.  Well, you know, we’ve invited these political leaders and they might be embarrassed if you talk about that.  You know, you just wonder whether he would be welcomed at Martin Luther King Day.

West: Every year now, ever since the 25 years we’ve now celebrated the anniversary of King’s birth, you get this transformation of Brother Martin and the Santa Claus with that lovely smile with toys in his bag.

Everybody’s smiling, glad to see him, as if he wasn’t a freedom fighter who was unnerving and unsettling and unhousing, elites making them shake in their boots and they hunting him down, haunting him down, every day from December of 1955 to his death, April 4, 1968.  So he undergoes Santa Clausification.  That’s one of the ways in which you de-fang and domesticate people who are on fire for justice.

Tavis: What became clear to me as our conversations drew to a close was how profoundly influenced everyone who had come in contact with Dr. King was, whether or not they knew him personally as so many we talked to did or just came to know his life and words through the prism of history.

Gwendolyn Shepherd: So what I have always had to do was what ML would do and what he would want rather than showing my anger.  Because, to tell you the truth, a lot of it is still in me.  Listen, if he could take what he took, there’s nothing that I can’t take.

Susannah Heschel: Dr. King had a vision for the future.  He help up something.  He didn’t simply scold us.  He did, of course, and he should and he was right to.  But he also had visions for us and he himself was that kind of vision.

You heard Dr. King, you looked at him, you were inspired, you thought how extraordinary that it’s possible for a human being to become a Martin Luther King.  That’s remarkable.  If that’s possible, then other things are possible.  We need those visions.  We need the inspiration.

Tavis: We decided to conclude our conversation about “Beyond Vietnam” where it began with Dr. Vincent Harding, the primary architect of this important speech and the connection he believes it had to Dr. King’s death one year to the day later.

Vincent Harding: I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech.  Over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.

Tavis: In his grief, Vincent Harding turned to Reverend James Lawson who was also struggling with his own sense of guilt.  It was Lawson who had asked for Dr. King to come to Memphis to support the striking garbage workers.  Less than a week later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Harding: I’m still wrestling with my own difficulties.  One day I was on the phone with Jim about something or another and I said to him, “Jim, how do you feel about the fact that you were the one who invited Martin there?  How have you dealt with that?”  Jim being the wonderful pastor and friend that he is, he probably picked up what I was trying to struggle with.  He said, “Vincent, what was clear to me was that Martin wanted to come to Memphis.”

He said, “When I first called Martin to invite him, he was in a staff meeting and I could hear the voices just booming onto the telephone, ‘Martin, tell him you can’t come, Martin.  We’ve got too much to do, Martin.  Just say no, Martin.’  He said, “Martin paid no attention and said, “Okay, Jim, let’s arrange it.”

“That told me that I was not coercing Martin, I was not forcing Martin.  It was not me primarily.  Martin saw those garbage workers and knew he wanted to stand with them, knew he needed to stand with them.  So I do not take that on my own shoulders, Vincent.”

That was a kind of burden off of my shoulders because I too knew that this was what Martin wanted, needed, to say and, with all the people who said he shouldn’t, if he was willing to go up against them, then it was a privilege for me to go with him.

Tavis: Despite the negative repercussions that followed his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King never retreated from his conviction that America had somehow lost her moral compass.  In fact, Dr. King had resolved that, come Sunday, April 7, 1968, his sermon topic would be why America may go to hell.

Martin Luther King: “Now let us begin.  Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, the beautiful struggle for our new world.  Shall we say the odds are too great?  Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?  Will there be another message of love and hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cause?  The choice is ours.  Though we might have preferred otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

Tavis: Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War was not the only controversial aspect of the last year of his life.  At the time of his death in 1968, King traveled to Memphis to speak on behalf of striking sanitation workers and, more broadly, the growing gap between the rich and the poor in America.

One can only imagine how he would view issues like poverty today in light of the fact that more and more Americans, and children in particular, find themselves among the ranks of this nation’s poor.  And as he brilliantly linked war and poverty together in that 1967 speech, he reminded us then, and indeed now, that war is the enemy of the poor.

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Last modified: August 29, 2011 at 2:40 pm