Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The last year of MLK’s life, from Cleveland to Vietnam

When I started my interviews for “King’s Speech,” my new oral history about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 Cleveland campaign, I expected to hear about how King’s views evolved and grew more radical in last year of his life.

Weeks before King spoke in Cleveland in April 1967, he delivered his famous speech against the Vietnam War at New York City’s Riverside Church. By fall, as King was helping to get out the vote for Carl Stokes, he was also planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive civil disobedience effort in the nation’s capital.

King died 44 years ago today, on April 4, 1968. His last year alive is fascinating because he moved far beyond his fight against legal segregation and the call to conscience of his “I Have A Dream” speech.

In 1967, King confronted complex dilemmas we still face today: American society’s obligation to the poor, the persistence of war, and the morality of American foreign policy. He talked about “wiping out the triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism,” creating “an era of revolution,” and changing “the whole structure of American life.”

Here in Cleveland, I discovered, King stressed a more immediate theme, also relevant 45 years later: How black Americans in northern cities could improve their lives. Rev. E.T. Caviness, one of the ministers who had invited King to town, said King focused on Cleveland issues while here.

CAVINESS: We were concerned about eliminating discrimination, integrating ourselves into the educational system, making sure we were able to work at City Hall and the like. At that time, you didn’t have anybody of color at City Hall in any major decision. Those global issues kind of took a back seat for us.
Hoping to prevent more riots in Hough, King worked to channel the rage of black Clevelanders into economic and political activism, boycotts and voting drives. King's uneasy solidarity with Carl Stokes gave him a role in the birth of modern black American political power.

King didn’t talk often about Vietnam while in Cleveland. His anti-war stance was controversial among civil-rights activists. Many feared it could rupture their coalition.

CAVINESS: That was a no-no at the time. [President Lyndon] Johnson was amenable to Dr. King. He had done everything he asked him to do. We were all together, saying, ‘Dr King, don’t do that, you’ll really kill us. We’ll not have access to the White House.’

But ultimately he said, you can’t have fragmented justice. War is wrong. You can’t talk about nonviolent activity and then support violent activity against people of other [countries].

How many battles do you take on? We trying to obliterate segregation and discrimination, and that was our battle. Vietnam was another thing.
Still, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, who accompanied King to Cleveland in 1967, both told me they remembered King speaking against the war here. Jackson recalled King talking one night at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church:

JACKSON: He was speaking about the war and the [relationship of] the war on poverty at home to the war in Vietnam. [He said,] “The bombs dropped in Vietnam explode in American cities, reinforcing alienation.

“When I was down South and my home was bombed, we told blacks, ‘Don’t shoot back.’ They were willing to. [When I said that,] I was a great guy!

“When I said whites shouldn’t kill blacks, blacks shouldn’t kill whites, [it also means] we shouldn’t kill brown people in Vietnam!”
The best samplings of King’s latter-day ideas include his late 1967 speeches on Canadian radio, collected in the book and CD The Trumpet of Conscience, and this episode of Eyes on the Prize, the classic PBS civil-rights documentary. His later speeches provoke the listener to imagine how King might react to American society today. It's a fraught question, because it risks revealing more about the person who answers it than about King. But Jesse Jackson, a young aide to King in 1967 and 1968, knew his thoughts during that era better than all but a few people still living.

So I closed my interview with Jackson by asking him: If King were still alive at age 83, what would he be doing today? His answer compared King’s activism to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

JACKSON: He’d be occupying. His last act on Earth was [organizing] the Poor People’s Campaign … to occupy the Mall. He said we should choose the war on poverty at home and healing over the war in Vietnam and killing. He’d be very concerned about our foreign policy, which has become so violent, and so expensive -- while at home, we have too much wealth concentration on Wall Street, created by government policy.

There’s so much poverty. Fifty million Americans are in poverty, 44 million on food stamps. There’s too much violence, too much wealth concentration, and too many expensive wars. He’d be in middle of this economic struggle.
For more about the Poor People's Campaign, see these stories from NPR and CNN, this video of King, and this photo collection.

To link to my oral history, "King's Speech," use this shortcut:

(photograph: Cleveland Public Library)

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