What did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stand for? Empowerment? Civil Rights? Peace? And what does he continue to represent today? These questions guided last week’s discussion hosted by the CSRD to evaluate MLK’s legacy towards the Vietnam War. As the CSRD’s inaugural Spring 2017 event, we wanted to focus on King and his perspectives toward the Vietnam War.
In his April 4th speech “Beyond Vietnam”, MLK laid out a compelling and radical vision for the end of the Vietnam War, breaking new ground in the social justice movement. Apart from his well-known work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King became incensed by what he saw as the injustices of the Vietnam War. King was well aware of his “radical departure”, but concluded that he could not tolerate the presence of an unjust war. As he famously concluded: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King also asserted a new patriotism that married anticommunism with economic justice, and bridged the gap between what were once at odds with each other. King said “We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice.”
“King, we always seem to forget, was a political dissident,” began Dr. Peniel Joseph, kicking off the afternoon conversation by affirming King’s legacy. “By dissident, I mean that King is constantly trying to subvert the status quo and norm, both within the Black Christian Church but also within the civil rights movement in the United States.”
Dr. Jeremi Suri continued the discussion by reading a section of King’s now famous April 4th “Beyond Vietnam” speech. “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursue the self-defeating path of hate.” Dr. Suri went on to discuss how King’s speech highlights the inherent tension between power and values, and that this tension has shaped much of American policy, especially within the civil rights movement.
Suri, LBJ Professor and Historian, highlighted how in some ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator J. William Fulbright conversed across time on the centrality of American values and “the arrogance of power”. “MLK was able to hold up a mirror to our true selves,” Suri says, “and shine a light on our shortcomings so we can aspire to align with our core values.”
“While King embraced values, he also was focused on policy and the urgent need to end the war machine that America had created,” Dr. Joseph responded. “Obama likely used this rhetoric to become elected and we can still acknowledge that this rhetoric is part of the American creed. That’s the meaning of ‘Yes We Can.’”
The Question & Answer section of the event featured questions that ran the gamut from how to best voice your opposition to the policies of the Trump administration to framing the narrative that can best gain votes. LBJ School Professor Dr. James Galbraith offered up his own reflections of King by discussing his own meeting with the Reverend in Boston. “My father, who had written The Affluent Society at the time, was close with Dr. King and after giving him a copy, I always felt like a piece of me was with Dr. King. The book was dedicated to me and my brother.”
Dr. Joseph ended the discussion by appealing to King’s core belief in a beloved community, and the promise that we can embrace multiculturalism without falling into “enemy politic”.
“At the end of the day, symbols and movements can rise above institutions and laws,” said Dr. Joseph. “We need to remember that racial justice is an inherent part of American democracy, and something that we must continue believing in as we move forward.”