The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated annually on a federal holiday on the third Monday of January. Politicians across the political spectrum put out statements praising his life’s work, and children in classrooms across America are told the tale of a man who stood up defiantly against racism and helped changed civil rights law.
But what they don’t mention is that King was not just a fighter for racial justice, he also fought for economic justice and against war. And as a result, he spent the last years of his life, before being assassinated in 1968, clashing not just with reactionary Southern segregationists, but with the Democratic Party’s elite and other civil rights leaders, who viewed his turn against the Vietnam War and the American economic system as dangerous and radical.
This “Santa Clausification” of King, as scholar Cornel West calls it — the portrayal of King as a celebrated consensus seeker asking for common sense racial reforms rather than as an anti-establishment radical — downplays the risks one of America’s most revered activists took to live according to conscience.
The Backlash Against King’s Opposition to the Vietnam War
While working alongside Democratic President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights issues, King was also increasingly disturbed by the war in Vietnam, and he would raise the issue privately with Johnson in White House calls and meetings. In April 1967, King decided to publicly denounce the war and call for its end. He gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City where he called the U.S. government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and denounced napalm bombings and the propping up of a puppet government in South Vietnam. He also called for a total re-examination of U.S. foreign policy, questioning capitalist exploitation of the developing world.
Many in the civil rights community warned King to focus on black civil rights and ignore the war so as not to alienate the Democratic Party. His Riverside Church speech explicitly rejected that demand, arguing that what America was doing across the world could not be morally segregated from what it was doing to African-Americans:
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. […] Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
The reaction from the American political establishment — much of it traditionally associated with American liberalism — was swift and harsh. The New York Times editorial board blasted King for linking the war in Vietnam to the struggles of civil rights and poverty alleviation in the United States, saying it was “too facile a connection” and that he was doing a “disservice” to both causes. It concluded that there “are no simple answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country.” The Washington Post editorial board said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people.” In all, 168 newspapers denounced him the next day.
President Johnson stopped taking meetings with King. “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?” Johnson reportedly remarked after the speech. “We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?”
One Harris poll conducted after King’s Vietnam speech found that only 25 percent of even African-Americans supported him in his antiwar turn — “only 9 percent of the public at large agreed with his objections to the war.”
Many in the civil rights community split with King over the war. The NAACP under the leadership of Roy Wilkins refused to oppose the war and explicitly condemned the effort to link the peace and civil rights movements. Whitney Johnson, the leader of the National Urban League warned that “Johnson needs a consensus. If we are not with him on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights.”
Jackie Robinson, the celebrated African-American baseball player and civil rights advocate, wrote to President Johnson two weeks after King’s speech to distance himself from the civil rights leader: “While I am certain your faith has been shaken by demonstrations against the Viet Nam war, I hope the actions of any one individual does not make you feel as Vice President Humphrey does, that Dr. King’s stand will hurt the civil rights movement. It would not be fair to the thousands of our Negro fighting men who are giving their lives because they believe, in most instances, that our Viet Nam stand is just.”
“Formula for Discord”
King had long considered himself a socialist, In 1966, he told staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that “there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
The last years of King’s life saw him escalate his campaign against economic inequality. He campaigned against the Oklahoma right-to-work referendum and warned that increased economic competition between whites and blacks would undermine civil rights — calling instead for a “Grand Alliance” between working-class whites and blacks.
He sought to use many of the same tactics he deployed in the South — boycotts, sit-ins, blockades — against economic injustice in inner cities in the North where African-Americans were trapped in endemic poverty. An article from the August 15, 1967, issue of The New York Times writes up King’s desire to “dislocate” large cities to force them to address these needs:
The editorial board of the liberal Times was less than pleased with King’s choice of tactics. The Times called the proposed campaign a “formula for discord” and warned against mass civil disobedience, writing that “once the spark of massive law-defiance is applied in the present overheated atmosphere, the potentiality for disaster becomes overwhelming”:
In 1968, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at providing good jobs, housing, and a decent standard of living to all Americans. Decades before American protesters took to the streets of New York City and other locales to “occupy” space to protest inequality, King proposed a massive tent encampment in Washington, D.C., to demand action on poverty.
King was assassinated before he was able to set up the encampment, called Resurrection City. His widow Coretta Scott King, as well as fellow civil-rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, went ahead with the plan.
The camp lasted six weeks until police moved in to shut it down and evict all of its inhabitants, pointing to sporadic acts of hooliganism as justification. Andrew Young, the young civil rights leader who later went on to be Jimmy Carter’s U.N. ambassador and a mayor of Atlanta, was horrified, saying the crushing of the camp was worse than the police violence he saw in the South.
“It was worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama,” he said. “You don’t shoot tear gas into an entire city because two or three hooligans are throwing rocks.”