“MLK: A Call to Conscience” Part One

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

We begin the first of two special nights that examine Dr. King’s call for an end to foreign wars and commitment to economic justice.

King's famed "Beyond Vietnam" speech led to an abrupt loss of his popularity in the last year of his life. In exclusive interviews, his closest advisors discuss the divisions within the civil rights movement over his opposition to the Vietnam War—and the political and public fallout from his criticism of American foreign policy. Guests for this compelling broadcast include: Dr. Vincent Harding, who is credited with co-writing the speech; Clarence Jones, King's legal advisor; and Marian Wright Edelman, organizer for the Poor People's Campaign with Dr. King.


Tavis: Exactly one year before Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he gave one of his most powerful and yet often-overlooked speeches from the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City. In that speech he called into question this country’s involvement in Vietnam and the economic disparity that was tearing up the fabric of America.

Tonight, in the first of two nights, we explore what led him to deliver a speech that would result in controversy and eventual betrayal.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:” I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Dr. Clayborne Carson: Martin Luther King knew when he gave that speech that it would set off a firestorm.

Dr. Susannah Heschel: It’s the speech that challenges us, and in that sense it’s his most important – that we are uncomfortable with that speech tells us something.

“Dr. King:” Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. But such questions mean that the enquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

Tavis: With this speech, Dr. King risked everything he’d worked so hard to accomplish. In its aftermath, all hell broke loose. Already off the list of the most-admired Americans, now the mainstream media turned against him, and even civil rights leaders publicly condemned him.

Hello, and thank you for joining me. I’m here in the historic Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what most agree was his most challenging and controversial call to conscience.

When he spoke here on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before he would be killed in Memphis, every pew, every available space, was jammed with listeners. In the midst of an increasingly unpopular war in Asia and a year already filled with oftentimes violent outbursts of rage in American cities, Dr. King once again dedicated himself to nonviolence.

But that call to peace was not what made this speech so courageous. It was, rather, his insistence that our war in Vietnam was destroying the soul of America, and that only by ending the bombing, bringing home U.S. troops, and focusing on the needs of the poor and disenfranchised right here at home could America, with all of her promise, survive.

“Dr. King:” And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

Tavis: Martin Luther King Jr. delivered hundreds of speeches, preached a sermon almost every Sunday of his adult life.

“Dr. King:” – you’re too arrogant.

Tavis: Two of his most famous speeches are as familiar as any in American history.

“Dr. King:” Because I have a dream – that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

Tavis: Those speeches have been analyzed and memorized, but the speech he gave here at the Riverside Church urging nonviolent reconciliation in a time of war, and a renewed commitment to economic and social justice, is the one that arguably has the most to teach us today as we search for honorable resolutions to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seek to narrow the gap between rich and poor here at home.

Marian Wright Edelman was a young lawyer working on behalf of the poor in Mississippi when Dr. King decided to speak out against the Vietnam War.

Marian Wright Edelman: He said over and over again, both in this speech and in other times, about the betrayal of silence, and obviously he had been struggling with this for a long time.

I’m sure he had thought through all the things that would be said about how he’s diverting attention from the civil rights movement. But he said – he struggled. But he was obviously also a very honest man who tried to work his way through what the gospel and the prophets demanded of him, and to try to live with that.

“Dr. King:” We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Tavis: “Beyond Vietnam” was a frank, no-holds-barred speech I which Dr. King took on the architects of the war and challenged the policies not only of President Johnson but of Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, every administration that had a hand in the conflict.

“Dr. King:” Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God, and brother to the suffering poor in Vietnam. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam.

I speak as a citizen of the world – of the world, as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America. To the leaders of our own nation, the great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

Dr. Cornel West: His conscience leaves him no choice. That he had reached a point where he had to break the silence, and we know that when silence replaces the truth, the silence itself is a lie. Martin Luther King Jr. was the kind of brother, the kind of human being, the kind of Christian, the kind of free Black man where he refused to live a lie.

Tavis: It’s challenging from a distance now of more than 40 years to remember what our country looked like in 1965, ’66, ’67, when the escalating war in Vietnam and the continuing struggle for civil rights seemed to turn this country into warring factions.

It’s now almost universally acknowledged that the Vietnam War was a mistake. Even wartime Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara conceded that before his death in 2009.

Phyllis Bennis: There is a uniformly accepted view that the war in Vietnam was wrong. Most people accept the fact that we lost the war. There’s a few who still say no, we didn’t really lose. I don’t know exactly what they think happened. But everybody agrees that it was a bad war.

Tavis: But at the time, many insisted America was making an important stand against communism, and that to question an ongoing war was tantamount to treason.

So when Dr. King told his inner circle that he was going to publicly condemn the war in no uncertain terms, there was immediate blowback. Many of his closest advisers questioned whether or not he realized what he was doing.

Dr. King’s friend and ally, Harry Belafonte, remembers.

Harry Belafonte: I believe very strongly that Dr. King understood with great clarity what it was he was getting into once he cross-pollinated our movement with the efforts of the peace movement and the resistance of the war in Vietnam.

He was not just speaking philosophically towards the issues of peace, but he also was speaking very strongly to the issues of American political policy.

Tavis: It was that decision to speak out about war policy that made so many in the civil rights movement angry. Why take on the Vietnam War when the fight for civil rights was still to be won?

Most importantly, why incur the wrath of President Lyndon Johnson, a man many considered to be the best civil rights president since Lincoln, and a man who had seemingly forged an important alliance with Dr. King.

“Dr. King:” One of the great tributes that we could pay in memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great progressive policies that he sought to initiate.

“President Lyndon Johnson: Well I’m going to support them all, and you can count on that. I’m going to do my best to get other men to do likewise, and I’ll have to have y’all’s help. I never needed it more than I do now.

“Dr. King:” Well, you know you have it, and just feel free to call on us for anything.

“President Johnson:” Thank you so much, Martin.

“Dr. King:” All right.

“President Johnson:” Call me when you’re down here next time.

“Dr. King:” I certainly will.

Clarence Jones: The question was should we publicly oppose him. Should we put ourselves at loggerheads with Johnson, who had done so much for us with civil rights?

Heschel: He was confronting the powers of this country. I had friends too who said, “You can’t criticize the president, the president must know what he’s doing.” And I heard from my father, “If Abraham can criticize God over the decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, then how can you not criticize the president? Look what he’s doing.”

I felt so this was Abraham. This was Abrahamic, this was prophetic, this was the Bible, alive.

Tavis: The rift was so deep that even his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, tried to silence him, and for a while, Dr. King was unsettled by that.

By 1967, some 600,000 American men were fighting in Vietnam, with 2,000 U.S. casualties reported every week. Funding that civil rights leaders hoped would go to the war on poverty was instead going to the war in Vietnam.

Dr. King realized whatever the risk to his reputation that he could no longer be silent. But the question remained: Where to give that speech?

Taylor Branch: The whole purpose of the Riverside Church speech was to cushion what he expected was going to be the negative politics for his speech 10 days later at the United Nations up in New York, where Stokely Carmichael was going to speak, and a lot of radicals.

They were going to be carrying Vietcong flags. His advisers, who didn’t want him to come out against Vietnam at all, said if you’re going to make that march, try to do something first that frames your argument in a way that it won’t be distorted, so that you can get your point across.

The Riverside Church was designed to be a clear statement, but in a religious context that would be respectful and therefore generate the maximum amount of attention to what Dr. King had to say, and it didn’t work.

“Dr. King:” I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate, leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

Tavis: It was one of the few speeches that King did not solely write himself, and unlike his sermons, which were often delivered extemporaneously, King read “Beyond Vietnam” from a carefully constructed text.

The text itself actually went through revision after revision, as many of his closest aides all took turns writing and rewriting.

Belafonte: I don’t think there was any speech that Dr. King ever gave that was as labored as this one was in his preciseness of thought and what he wanted to impart.

Tavis: Clarence Jones, King’s long-time friend and lawyer, was one of those who wrote a draft of the speech, which Dr. King quickly rejected.

Jones: He says, “Clarence, I thought you were my radical.” I said, “I don’t quite understand what you mean.” He says, “What is this – you go on and state the issue in the war, and then you say, ‘But on the other hand,’ and then you go on and state it. And you say, ‘But on the one hand and the other hand.'”

He says, “Clarence, you above all people should know that the Vietnam War is either morally right or morally wrong. It’s not on the one hand or on the other hand.”

Tavis: To get the speech he wanted, Dr. King then turned to one of his closest friends, Vincent Harding. He’s credited with writing the basic framework of the speech, which King then embellished.

That legal folder that’s sitting on your lap – what have you inside that folder?

Harding: Okay. Well, this is my file for that first draft of the speech that was delivered in this place.

Tavis: Can I – can I touch this?

Harding: You may touch it, but don’t touch it too hard. (Laughter)

Tavis: Wow. I’m immediately stunned, because this obviously is a piece of history – the first draft of the speech. For whatever changed in the draft as you and Dr. King worked on it, this first line stayed the same.

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Tell me why that first line, which pretty much sums it all up, didn’t change in the subsequent drafts.

Harding: Martin knew that he wanted to speak from that position, not just as an anti-Vietnam leader, but as a man, a citizen, of conscience. We say in the speech but dealing with Vietnam is not enough. That what we’re doing in Vietnam is indicative of a spirit, of an attitude, of a history that could lead us into similar deep, disastrous mistakes in the future.

This is a case of getting out of a certain frame of mind, of a way of thinking about ourselves and thinking about the world, and “Beyond Vietnam” meant we’ve got to go in that direction.

Tavis: On April 4th, the Riverside Church was standing room only. Every pew was jammed with supporters. Another 1,200 extra seats were brought in and were quickly filled.

Hundreds more stood outside, hoping for a chance to hear Dr. King. One of those in the church that day in ’67 was the young daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Her father was one of Dr. King’s closest friends and allies. The reverend and the rabbi had walked together in Selma, and stood side by side as proponents of nonviolence, and had championed the poor and disenfranchised. They both studied the Bible, and saw it as a living text.

Herschel: The question my father worried about was, of course, what will it do to the civil rights movement? Everyone knew Dr. King would be attacked.

Should my father morally, was it right for him to encourage Dr. King to speak out against the war.

Tavis: How did he navigate, to your point now, knowing that his friend, Martin King, when he came to Riverside to give that speech, was going to be demonized?

Herschel: My father knew that Dr. King meant every word of what he came to say at Riverside Church. Yes, it takes courage and it’s very difficult, but he also knew that Dr. King believed in this and wanted to do it.

My father would never try to convince him to say anything that he didn’t believe in. I think that speech and that evening exemplified a phrase that my father used: “Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Tavis: It was a speech that questioned the morality of an ongoing war, and insisted that unrestricted war funding would derail social reforms at home – education, jobs, and lifting Americans out of poverty.

Although other King speeches were filmed in their entirety, less than 10 minutes of film remain from the Riverside Church. We only know King’s powerful delivery thanks to the audio recordings that were made.

“Dr. King:” 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 build-up in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.

Carson: We wanted to show that there’s a linkage between the war and what’s going on with Black America.

That the war was interfering with that, the war – that Lyndon Johnson wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to do good things for the domestic agenda, for the great society, but he also wanted to have the war.

Tavis: It was a speech if asked if fear had turned Americans into bullies.

“Dr. King:” War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs and nuclear weapons. That is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

Branch: This speech was radical in the sense that it gave a pointed, accusing reminder of how far we had strayed from his main message, that nonviolence and democracy are a glove on a hand, they fit together, and war was corrupting our promise, the promise of freedom.

Tavis: It was a speech that said nonviolence wasn’t weakness, and that retaliation wasn’t strength – a position that remains as controversial today as it was then.

There are those who think that your father’s philosophy, King’s philosophy, espoused in this place in 1967, wouldn’t work. Obsolete in today’s world.

Heschel: I don’t agree. People felt the same way in the past. They felt the same way about communism and about Vietnam and the threat that it posed. I’ve heard this in my own life.

A lot of people thought nonviolence was hopeless against people like Bull Connor.

Tavis: And Hitler.

Heschel: And Hitler. My father was not an absolute pacifist. He knew that there are times when you must go and rescue people, and it may take force of arms.

But he also believed that first you have to try as hard as you can with other methods. If I could see the miracle, really, the miracle that Dr. King worked in this country, how he transformed us, can’t it work in other settings? I can’t say that it can’t. How could I?

Tavis: It’s a speech that resonates today as we grapple with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves if the current conflicts are a repetition of Vietnam – a charge that many, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, strongly reject.

“Dr. King:” Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place, and 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 society and sending them to guaranteed liberties in Southeast Asia, which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson: So King responding to what was going on in Vietnam as a direct relationship to what was going on in Black America, he began to add the numbers up, and the mathematics was miserable for Black people.

Disproportionate numbers of Black people are being sent to the front. In 1965, they lowered the educational standard for entry into the military, and admitted Black people that they had previously kept out. What is that, affirmative retroaction?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Dyson: So it was stunning for King to witness that Black people were dying in disproportionate numbers on fields of rice and paddies that were napalmed, but couldn’t come back home and enjoy the basic decency of American citizenship

He said, “Look, I’ve spent my life fighting segregation. I’m not going to segregate my conscience.”

Tavis: In “Beyond Vietnam,” Dr. King also addressed another one of the most important issues with which he had been grappling: How, as a proponent of nonviolence, he could remain silent about an ongoing war.

“Dr. King:” My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers.

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolence action.

But they ask, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? And 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.

Tavis: Tomorrow night, part two of our look at Dr. King’s stand against the war in Vietnam, and the growing economic divide that was threatening our country’s stability – a stance that resonates even today.

That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: January 22, 2014 at 6:03 pm