News & Politics

The More Radical MLK Came of Age in New York

Fifty-one years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. visited New York to declare that the Vietnam War was poisoning America’s soul

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On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side in which he famously expanded his civil rights message to include a new subject: demanding an end to the Vietnam War.

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam,” King declared. His strong criticisms of the war — including pointing out that the war exploited poor populations while diverting money from services to address poverty, and that it used black soldiers to spread U.S. imperialism abroad — drew ire from all sides.

Some local black leaders gathered outside the church to protest, fearing that the civil rights movement would be harmed if blacks were portrayed as unpatriotic. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People condemned any connection between civil rights and the peace movement, saying it was a “serious tactical mistake.” The New York Times published an editorial saying King’s rhetoric would “lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.” President Lyndon Johnson disinvited King from the White House. The 3,000 spectators at Riverside Church, however, gave him a standing ovation.

It would be a defining speech for King, emblematic of the type that he had given in New York City throughout his career. At the crux of King’s relationship with New York, where he spent considerable time during his early days, was an acknowledgment that the city was a cultural and political hub that allowed him to unite North and South while reanimating his own politics.

“New York provides a lens through which we see a broader and more radical vision articulated by Martin Luther King than is often remembered,” says Sarah Seidman, Puffin Foundation curator of social activism at the Museum of the City of New York, which through June 24 has on display an exhibit titled “King in New York” that explores his relationship to the city. “In particular, that King decried not only racism, but materialism and militarism.”

From the moment King became a national figure, his path would lead him repeatedly through New York. In 1956, after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, King chose Concord Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant for one of his first Northern speaking engagements since the protests began. When King had first lectured in New York in 1950 as a student pastor, at the First Baptist Church in East Elmhurst, his teacher had noted “a smugness that refuses to adapt itself to the demands of ministering effectively to the average Negro congregation.”

But at Concord Baptist Church, 2,500 black people from all over New York packed in to hear the 27-year-old King charm them with stories of a beloved local pastor, an old family friend of the Kings, and lecture on the dignity of black people. “Press on and keep pressing,” he told his rapt congregation. “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk — crawl.”

Soon after this appearance, King’s then–newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to partner with the New York–based NAACP, which had provided legal aid to the Montgomery boycott. The two organizations would continue to share a fragile partnership over the coming years, largely navigated by King and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins. The largely legal-minded NAACP would later take issue with the SCLC’s preference for direct action, and its cooperation with younger, more radical organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These kinds of collaborations, and the tensions they engendered, would be illustrative of King’s career, especially in New York.

In early 1963, King was asked to deliver the commencement speech at the City College of New York. He immediately accepted, even though he was then in the midst of organizing against the police-borne chaos, bombings, and jailings that were occurring in the South.

“There was a lot going on, a feeling that we’re really going down this road,” Jack O’Dell, head of SCLC’s New York office, later told a CUNY researcher. “There was Birmingham, and we were mobilizing for the March on Washington. Dr. King was getting a lot of invitations. But there were few places more important than New York for anything progressive.”

Hours before King was supposed to speak at CCNY, on June 12, 1963, civil rights activist and Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. King gave a speech that included the grave warning that students were “moving into a world of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty” where “we may very well destroy ourselves by the misuse of our instruments.” Without culture (“that realm of spiritual ends”), he cautioned, our civilization (“that complex of devices, techniques, instruments, mentalities, and mechanisms by means of which we live”) would be rendered useless, foreign, even monstrous.

The speech was graphic and bold, as he pointedly discussed Emmett Till, the fourteen-year old Mississippi boy who had been murdered nearly eight years earlier after accusations that he’d whistled at a white woman; the killing of Evers; and the disfigurement of the world. Rather than begging for compassion, he demanded it. But he ended with a familiar chorus:

“With this faith and this determination we will be able to bring into being that great day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands right here in this nation and sing, in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ”

With that, the 3,541 students and their 12,000 guests at CCNY’s Lewisohn Stadium had witnessed a preview of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King would deliver two months later in Washington, D.C., this time sounding more hopeful than fearful.

But during this period, King’s popularity with some in New York began to wane. King’s passive approach did not mesh with the new, more radical point of view that was on the rise in the civil rights movement. SNCC, which King’s SCLC had long partnered with in protests in the South, was beginning to embrace Black Power and reject his nonviolent tactics and welcome of white people to take part in the movement. In July 1963, King was pelted with eggs on the way to deliver a sermon in Harlem, in a seemingly random attack. (Jackie Robinson charged the Muslim Brotherhood were the culprits, though Malcolm X denied this.)

But mainstream New Yorkers still thought highly of the reverend. In 1964, New York City mayor Robert Wagner anointed King, fresh off his Nobel Peace Prize win, an “honorary New Yorker.” Harlem welcomed him back with revelry, but some local leaders were frustrated with the attention King was receiving. King was often sought out by white politicians, like Wagner and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and was seen as something of a political pawn. Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was becoming more aligned with the Black Power movement, took pleasure in mocking him, calling him “Martin Loser King.”

By 1967, SCLC and other liberation movements were fractured. King had become increasingly burdened by the destruction waged by the Vietnam War. His 1967 address in New York was an attempt to correct what he saw as a glaring contradiction in his own nonviolent rhetoric.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” he said at Riverside Church. “With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ ”

But King never got to deliver what likely would have been his most strident anti-war New York speech. King had accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a demonstration for peace scheduled for April 27, 1968, that was sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee.

Shortly after King’s assassination on April 4, the committee ran an advertisement in the Voice that read, “The demonstration will rededicate itself to continuing Reverend King’s efforts to end the war against Black America and to end the war in Vietnam.”

Nearly 100,000 people attended the demonstration. Coretta Scott King spoke in her husband’s place. “I would like to share with you some notes taken from my husband’s pockets upon his death,” Scott King told the crowd before reading what she described as King’s “Ten 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.”

Research assistance by Alana Mohamed.

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