Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ Speech Was His Most Controversial, Assassinated Exactly One Year Later [Video]

Martin Luther King, Jr. (birth name Michael King) was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta. During MLK celebrations, the “I Have a Dream” speech is the focus, and not much is written about King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and how his stance on this international issue caused him to lose supporters, including then President Lyndon Baines Johnson and most civil rights leaders. His speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” demonstrates that not only did King believe violence was inappropriate in the United States but throughout the world.

He preached the message at Riverside Church, in New York City, on April 4, 1967. On the following day, 168 newspapers denounced King for opposing the government and disabling the civil rights movement. He was also disinvited from the White House, noted NPR News. He had wanted to give the Vietnam speech two years before, but one of his closest advisers, Stanley Levison, warned him not to do it. Levison’s thoughts that were doing so would estrange President Johnson who had done more for civil rights than any of his predecessors. Other leaders agreed with Levison, and indeed, the speech cost King a working relationship with Johnson.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the Vietnam War and America’s soul he criticized racism, militarism & materialism. pic.twitter.com/DPdgpD4AmD

King expounded that he could not preach non-violence on the American homefront while keeping silent as villages were desecrated and children were bombed with napalm in Vietnam. He also tied the war to decreased spending at home to help the poor — both black and white. In 1971, he was posthumously awarded a Grammy for the speech which is also known as “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” He declared it an unjust war, perpetrated by his own government and said his conscience made him speak out against it — reminding the audience at Riverside Church, that his calling, first and foremost, was as a minister of the gospel whose message was the love of Jesus Christ, which extended to everyone, not solely Americans. An issue tied to his former silence on the war was the hypocrisy of a nation sending young black men to fight in a war that was not of their own choosing, but for a government that continued to oppress them, per the Philadelphia Sun.

Prior to the Vietnam speech, there were indeed improvements in the country — and not only for African-Americans — because equal rights and justice for all were the goals of the movement. On January 3, 1964, King was chosen as “Man of the Year” and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. On December 10 of the same year, he became the then youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his leadership skills and ability to work with everyone, the death threats, bombings, and hatred toward him and his followers continued.

Strides gained during the era were Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and Voting Rights in 1965. King negotiated on these with Johnson, and when the Voting Rights Act was signed, the president presented MLK with one of the pens. Although racism continued, at least there were laws against blatant discrimination on the books that, in many cases, were not effectively practiced.

King continued to dedicate himself to causes that would ultimately improve the conditions of the poor. In January, 1965, he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, moved into an apartment on the south side of Chicago to bring attention to the inhumane living conditions, which were the only ones available to many, as landlords were not held accountable. The civil rights icon, along with Floyd McKissick and Stockily Carmichael, led the “March Against Fear,” from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, after James Meredith was shot and wounded near Memphis.

The Nobel Prize laureate took a step back from the civil rights movement to pen his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, published in June, 1967. In this book, Martin Luther King, Jr. analyzed race relations and the civil rights movement. He laid out his thoughts on the new struggles, incited by legislation that was intended to end discrimination.

The persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South.

On March 28, 1968, the man who was renamed Martin Luther by his own father, led a 6,000 strong protest of sanitation workers in Memphis, but had to be rushed from the scene due to violence. Days later on April 3, he returned to the city and gave the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The next evening, on April 4, 1968, one year to the date of the courageous Vietnam speech, he was slain in his country, which he often referred to as “beloved.” To date, few talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-war protester and humanitarian whose compassion had enough largesse to expand beyond the borders of the United States.

[Photo via Hulton Archive/Getty]