Dr. King's Opposition to Vietnam War


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New book about MLK's mentor offers insights into his career as we prepare to observe World Peace Day (Sept. 21)

Much has been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 -1968) views on the issues of the day. However, his opposition to the Viet Nam War is sometimes overlooked.   

In an April 4, 1967, appearance at the New York City Riverside Church, King delivered a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam." He spoke strongly against the U.S.'s role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony" and calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He also argued that the country needed larger and broader moral changes.

He said,”A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. 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."

King also didn't like the fact that the war was shifting resources to the conflict and taking them away from  the War on Poverty.  He said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography, by Randal Maurice Jelks from the University of North Carolina Press,  highlights the man who was the mentor to Dr. King.  An interview with the author below sheds light on  the ideologies and ambitions of Mays.

King's outspoken position on Viet Nam cost him many political allies  including President Johnson (pictured above)."The press is being stacked against me," King complained. "Life" magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,"and The Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

King stated that North Vietnam "did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands". King also criticized the United States' resistance to North Vietnam's land reforms. He accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, "mostly children."

King also stated, in his "Beyond Vietnam", speech that "true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar ... it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring". King quoted a United States official who said that, from Vietnam to Latin America, the country was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King condemned America's "alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and said that the United States should support "the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World rather than suppressing their attempts at revolution.

Dr. MArtin Luther King, Jr.In 1967, King gave another speech, in which he lashed out against what he called the "cruel irony" of American blacks fighting and dying for a country which treated them as second class citizens:

“We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. ... We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them in the same schools.”

On January 13, 1968, the day after President Johnson's State of the Union Address, King called for a large march on Washington against "one of history's most cruel and senseless wars."

“We need to make clear in this political year, to congressmen on both sides of the aisle and to the president of the United States, that we will no longer tolerate, we will no longer vote for men who continue to see the killings of Vietnamese and Americans as the best way of advancing the goals of freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia.”

Book cover: Benjamin Elijah MAys Schoolmaster of the MovementRandal Maurice Jelks, author of Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography, was recently interviewed on the blog of the University of North Carolina Press website. During the interview he discusses the ideologies and ambitions of Mays, a leader in the civil rights movement and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Q: Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894-1984) is perhaps most well known for being the mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.; he even delivered the eulogy for King on the Morehouse College campus. How would you describe the relationship between King and Mays?

A: The relationship between Mays and King was paternal, like father and son. Mays acted as a second father to King, as a wise counselor and an advocate on his behalf in dealing with older civil rights leaders.

Q: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement started out as a paper you presented at the centennial celebration of Benjamin Elijah Mays at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. What made you decide to turn your paper into a full-fledged book?

A: I decided to turn it into a book because nearly every major work on the civil rights movement included biographies of King, but never explored Mays, who had a profound impact both on Martin Luther King Jr. and in his own right. Second, nearly every civil rights history mentioned Mays, but never fully his role in relationship to the civil rights movement.

Q: This biography was 17 years in the making. Why did this process take such a long time?

A: I wrote another book along the way titled African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. Interestingly enough, I wrote about Samuel Graves, who came from Grand Rapids to become the second president of Morehouse College. Additionally, I had a big job of going through the Mays papers at Howard University and finding his correspondence in other collections. Lastly, I was rearing children.

Q: In this chronological narrative of Mays’s life and writings, you write up until the publication of his autobiography, Born to Rebel, in 1971. What are the key elements you hope to fulfill that the autobiography may have left out?

A: Mays shaped his autobiography to address the events of the late 1960s, but he failed to narrate the important things about himself. He did not include many of things he had done during those years, or his personal struggles and pains. Born to Rebel was written as a justification as to why the civil rights movement was necessary and as reminder to the generation born in the 1950s of the struggle of their elders.

Q: In Mays’s New York Times obituary, Frank J. Prial said Mays had angered his father by “aiming too high” when he decided to attend college in 1916. What do you think were the driving factors behind Mays’s ambition and his commitment to making a difference in the civil rights movement?

A: Ambition is one of those indeterminate things in any human being’s life. I suggest in the book that Mays combined his ambition with his religious belief, driving him to challenge the system of racial segregation. Prial was correct, Mays did anger his father. Mays’s father, Hezekiah Mays, had known men who aimed high and who were beaten down by the system of Jim Crow, as he himself had been. His anger was partially fear for his son’s safety.

Q: Mays grew up in the Afro-Baptist tradition, which he believed to be a survival mechanism for African Americans. How would you characterize this tradition, and how has it since evolved?

A: I disagree with Mays. Yes, the Afro-Baptist tradition helped people to survive, but it also helped numerous individuals to strive. It was an institution solely operated by black Americans. To be sure, it was flawed, but it would evolve on its own accord. Today Black Baptist Churches are what Mays thought they should become, but black Americans have changed and there is more religious pluralism and atheism in black communities today than in Mays’s time.

Q: You examine the foundations and origins of Mays’s ideas, especially in relation to the civil rights movement and Protestant theology. One particular term that was deeply embedded in him was “Prophetic Christianity.” What is this term, and how does it impact his story?

A: The term is really borrowed from Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. Protestantism in the scope of world religions borrowed from the eighth century B.C.E. Hebrew prophets to challenge the religious doctrinaire in Northwest Europe in the sixteenth century. This iconoclastic tradition in the hands of American slaves and ex-slaves became a powerful weapon in challenging the religious certitudes about race and inequality in the United States.

Q: Mays was extremely loyal to his southern roots. Discuss his dedication to the South, and what impact did that have on the civil rights movement?

A: Mays could have left the South numerous times, but he never did. He knew that the key institutions that black people had were in the South. For example, all the institutions of higher education that served black youth were in the South. He also thought if the South were transformed, the United States would be transformed. He was proud to be a southerner. He did not want to abandon the place where his ancestors had put their blood into the land and developed it and helped to win the Civil War. He wanted to claim the South back from being the “white” South, so he remained loyal to the region of his birth and rearing.

Q: It is nearing 30 years since the passing of Mays. What do you think Mays would have to say about religion and race in America today?

A: He would say that Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hour in America. He would be delighted to see the growth in the number of scholars who are writing about black religion. He would also be delighted to see the number of seminary presidents and deans who are black Americans outside of historical black colleges and universities. He would be dismayed about how the events of 9/11 made some people equate being a Muslim with being a terrorist. I know he would have shaken his head and thought that black Americans never equated all Protestant Christians with the Ku Klux Klan, a religious and terrorist organization.

Randal Maurice Jelks is associate professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas.

Visit your local library for these resources:

by Randal Maurice Jelks

Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography,

African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids

by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, (1958)

The Measure of a Man, (1959)

Strength to Love, (1963)

Why We Can't Wait, (1964)

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, (1967)

The Trumpet of Conscience, (1968).

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (1991).

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Clayborne Carson, editor, (1998).

All Labor Has Dignity
Michael Honey, editor, (2011). 

Thou, Dear God: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits
Dr. Lewis Baldwin, editor, (2011).
Collection of Dr. King's prayers.

MLK: A Celebration in Word and Image
Photographed by Bob Adelman, introduced by Charles Johnson, (2011).


Image credit:

1. Article illustration:
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room
18 March 1966.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.
Author:Yoichi R. Okamoto


2. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964.
Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection
Author: Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer

Creative Commons License


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