January of each year we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In so doing, unfortunately, many of us have allowed media to present us with a caricature of Dr. King instead of a more fully developed and complex portrait. The use of nonviolence as both a tactic and a way of life is always associated with Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement and yet, Dr. King’s anti-militarism as a natural and rational consequence of his nonviolence is rarely mentioned as much.
Some observers of Dr. King’s legacy point to his speech of April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York city, exactly one year before his assassination, as the “tipping point” of his anti-militarism. In that speech, variously know as “Beyond Vietnam” or “A Time To Break Silence,” Dr. King most famously states one of the main reasons he decided to speak out against the war in Vietnam: “ … my experience in the ghettoes 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 nonviolent action. But they ask – and rightly so – what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, 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.”
According to one of Dr. King’s closest aides however, Rev. Andrew Young, Dr. King’s anti-militarism preceded his statements at the Riverside Church by several years. “When he received the Noble Prize in ’64 and the stirrings of the war in Vietnam were just beginning,” said Rev.Young, “many of the people in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the NAACP, the Urban League, almost everybody, even Bayard [Rustin], felt we should not get involved in the war issue because [President] Lyndon Johnson had been an ally on civil rights, and [we should let others do that,” Rev. Young said via telephone from Kansas City.
There were two things, said Rev. Young, that influenced Dr. King’s change. One of them was his wife. “Coretta, as a student at Antioch [College,1945-1949], had been active in a movement called Women’s Strike For Peace, so she was out against the war in Vietnam before he was; for a while, he just let her [do the anti-war work] and he stuck to civil rights,” remembers Rev.Young. The other motivator was Dr. King’s own conscience. “[Finally Dr. King] had to say that he couldn’t be against segregation and then segregate his own conscience, and thats when he said ‘the bombs you drop on Vietnam will explode at home in unemployment and inflation.”
On April 27, 1968 Coretta Scott King addressed an anti-war rally her husband was supposed to speak at in Sheep Meadow, New York. The speech she gave gave from some notes that were taken from Dr. King’s pocket following his murder in Memphis, TN on April 4. She had hurried to Memphis hours after his death and represented him the following day at a march of striking sanitation workers that had requested Dr. King’s presence. The notes were entitled “10 Commandments on Vietnam.”
Thou shalt not believe in a military victory
Thou shalt not believe in a political victory
Thou shalt not believe that they, the Vietnamese, love us
Thou shalt not believe that the Saigon government has the support of the people
Thou shalt not believe that the majority of the south Vietnamese look upon the Vietcong as terrorists
Thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans
Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best
Thou shalt not believe that the enemy’s victory means communism
Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States
Thou shalt not kill
In addition to reading her husband’s notes, Mrs. King offered her own words to those assembled at the rally: “My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty here at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin,” she said. “In fact, it is even very clear that our policy at home is to try to solve social problems through military means just as we have done abroad. The interrelatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all of their devastating potential.”
Rev. Young echoed that sentiment in that Dr. King’s “ … economic positon really grew out of his attempts to addres the equation of war, and how the war was destroying a very stable, growing economy …for much of Vietnam, up through Reagan and Bush … the reason have this economic defiit now, somewhere in the neighborhoodof $16-$17 trillion dollars, is not that we have been spending money on the poor, but we have been making war and not willing to pay for it with taxes, said Rev. Young.
“We are willing to pay with the lives of our children, but not with our tax dollars,” he said.