Dr. King: The Monument, The Legacy and Today’s Wars

by William Loren Katz on September 9, 2011

It has taken a hurricane to postpone the dedication of the long-awaited monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington — the first on the Mall for an individual who is not a president, not a white man and not a war leader. King repeatedly proved he was not frightened by hurricanes, and calmly faced many human storms before he was assassinated in April 1968. However, since major corporations contributed to the monument, how will Dr. King’s message and courage be presented to the American public and remembered by children? In 1964 when Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, J. Edgar Hoover, frightened by his popularity since his 1963 March on Washington, called him “the most notorious liar in the country” and ordered his FBI to increase its surveillance of the man and his movement. In the last year of King’s life 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of African Americans disapproved of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his campaign to eradicate poverty. On the other hand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”

A more recent assessment of King was offered this January 13th when the Pentagon commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with an address by Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel. In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium of Defense Department officials. However, Johnson hastily added, today’s wars are not out of line with the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings. “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”


According to civil rights veteran, noted feminist scholar and author Dr. Jo Freeman, who worked for King’s SCLC beginning in 1965 and is completing a memoir of her years in the movement, King repeatedly opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam before small gatherings. He reluctantly stopped, says Freeman, when he was warned his criticism of President Johnson in Asia might jeopardize his War on Poverty. But King’s conscience, and Johnson’s escalation of the war, drove him into a full-blown public denunciation in 1967. That April 4th at the Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King delivered his speech, “Declaration of Independence from the War In Vietnam.” It is not only eloquent and passionate but also carefully reasoned and as unambiguous in its message as its title. I remember marching that Spring with my friends when King and Stokley Carmichael organized a massive peace march to the United Nations building in New York. Carmichael introduced the anti-war chant, “Hell no, we won’t go!” that attracted great attention.

Dr. King’s earlier call for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was also hard to ignore. It brought challenges to his leadership and moral purpose from his enemies, lost him civil rights allies, and led to more death threats and less government protection when he needed it most. In 1967 the New York Times and the Washington Post led the liberal and the mainstream media in condemning his stance. He expected all that. He had chosen to speak at a time when U.S. officials from the president down loudly warned that communism’s triumph in Vietnam would lead to victories across Asia and beyond, and used this “domino theory” to make Americans as fearful of communism as they are of today’s Middle Eastern terrorists.

King was resolute and unmoved by charges he was unpatriotic. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” King said. He minced few words, referring to “my own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Has much changed today when the U.S. boasts the largest military budget in history, one larger than all other countries combined? The United States has untold bases on every continent, and its armed forces have been kept in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than in World War II. Weekly we hear of the drone attacks in Libya and how the U.S. government is contemplating air strikes against Iran’s nuclear building sites. U.S. casualties are rising in the Middle East, and there seems no end in sight for those facing U.S. occupation and war.

Would Dr. King have called for withdrawal from Vietnam and, had he lived, not called for a withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Would he have failed to see parallels that are as obvious as they are frightening?

In his Riverside address, Dr. King pointed out that “our leaders refused to tell us the truth” about our war in Vietnam. Can we ever forget that the U.S. attack on Iraq was initiated to destroy weapons of mass destruction that never existed, and retaliate against a Saddam Hussein and Iraq that had no part in the 9/11 attacks on the United States? In the name of “Iraqi freedom” our leaders ordered the torture of prisoners, even sending some to other countries or U.S.-run “black sites” for torture; to assure democracy the U.S.supported corrupt leaders who lack popular support. The people of Vietnam, King said, “must see Americans as strange liberators.” In Afghanistan today those who suffer from drone attacks directed from afar, and from other deadly night ground searches for terrorists, do not see us as liberators. They see a distant, imperial power occupying their countries, killing innocent civilians, and as doomed to fail as earlier foreign invaders of Afghanistan.

“The madness of Vietnam,” Dr. King said in 1967, will “totally” poison “America’s soul.” He told how U.S. involvement in Vietnam “eviscerated” its war on poverty begun by President Lyndon Johnson, and instead had its “funds and energies” and “men and skills” drawn into a war “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” What happens to “America’s soul” as the U.S. fights three Middle Eastern wars, its military budget spins out of control, and joblessness and hopelessness soar to levels known during the Great Depression?

Dr. King emphasized how the Vietnam War was “devastating the hopes of the poor at home” and “sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population.” In 2011 a volunteer army draws even more heavily on the poor, those without jobs, men and women losing hope of finding meaningful work. Dr. King said then “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.” Would the man who organized a Poor People’s March on Washington before his assassination be silent now?

Toward the end of his address at the Riverside Church, Dr. King said: “Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam …. The great initiative in the war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”

Was not Martin Luther King, Jr. reaching beyond Vietnam when he warned of “approaching spiritual death” and called for “a significant and profound change in American life and policy” and insisted “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” Was he only speaking of Vietnam when he said, “War is not the answer?”

We the people have to make sure it is neither the J. Edgar Hoover spin or the Pentagon version, but the real legacy of Dr. King that is acknowledged and celebrated. We owe that to future generations.

Image from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.01269. Dr. King’s Riverside speech can be read and heard at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence2.htm

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