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Less than a year before his assassination, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to Harlem. In the June 22, 1967, Village Voice, contributor Marlene Nadle observed the crowd anxiously awaiting the Baptist minister’s arrival: “Using programs folded accordion style instead of pastel fans with pictures of Christ, they managed to turn the chandeliered ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt into a Baptist Church.”
At times during her reporting on the event, Nadle comes across as jaded, as in her description of when the audience initially glimpses King in a movie being shown by the hospital workers’ union, which had arranged the event: “The Lord appeared for the first time — on film. There was a great burst of applause.”
But when King arrives in the flesh and delivers his speech, Nadle acknowledges why the crowd is so rapt: “What he said was not important. It was the man who lent weight to the words. It was his presence felt, his integrity sensed. Such a man could make the telephone book seem like the gospel.”
But in point of fact, her coverage of the speech revealed that King’s words were very important. He was unafraid to speak to America’s most powerful interests — at his growing peril. Nadle relates his principled opposition to the Vietnam War: “ ‘Who appointed this country divine agent to the world?’ he asked. ‘Who gave it the arrogance to try to fix up another country when it hasn’t put its own house in order? How can it expect its black soldiers to fight in brutal solidarity with whites in Vietnam and then come home and not be able to live on the same block with them?’ ”
King goes on to ask: “How come this country only worries about Vietnam? How come it doesn’t use its power against South Africa or Rhodesia?”
And the stirring oratory calling out hypocrisy at the top just keeps coming:
There has been a whole lot of applauding in this country. People and the newspapers applauded me in Montgomery when Negroes were killed and I urged people to be non-violent. They applauded me in Birmingham when Negroes were gassed and I urged people to be non-violent against Bull Connor. They applauded me in Philadelphia after the bodies of the three were found and I urged people to be non-violent against Sheriff Rainey. Yet they damn me now when I urge people to be non-violent against little children in Vietnam.
Even tonight, a man came up to me and said that my talking against the war had hurt my leadership. He urged me to pull back from my position.
My answer to him was: “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine my position by polls nor by what is safe or politic or popular, but by what is right. As for hurting civil rights by my position, the war has already done more to hurt civil rights than I could ever do by talking against Vietnam.”
Despite the dismal picture both in and out of this country, the Lord has not been beaten down. I have not lost faith. We have survived slavery. No war and no backlash is going to turn us around.
The crowd answered: “Amen.”
Then King, foreshadowing why he is celebrated every year — on his birthday in the dead of winter — as a great American, concluded, “We shall overcome. No lie can live forever.”