Martin Luther King Jr., Anti-War Activist

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Kristal Brent Zook talks about a little-known aspect of Martin Luther King Jr's persona: his public condemnation of the war in Vietnam.

ED GORDON, host:

When people speak of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they often talk about his fight for equal rights, his mesmerizing stage presence or his methods of non-violent protest. But commentator Kristal Brent Zook reminds us that King's legacy is not limited to civil rights; he was also an outspoken anti-war activist.


America is not in the habit of remembering King as an anti-war resister. We prefer to hold him up as a peace lover in a vacuum, a pacifist taken out of context from the time and place in which he lived, in the midst of what he deems to be an unjust war in Vietnam. But in his radical 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam," given before a crowd of 3,000 people crammed into New York City's Riverside Church, the reverend shored up two years of protests into his most comprehensive statement against the war. He called for a worldwide fellowship that moved beyond tribe, race, class and nation, and he condemned a war that sent young black men 8,000 miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not yet found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

Even as King spoke of the need for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind, he knew that his words would be dismissed as cowardice and weakness. `I am not speaking of some sentimental response,' he insisted. `I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as a supreme unifying principle of life.'

In today's climate, King's revolutionary stance against US militarism and warmongering are redefined as weakness. To stand up to the terrorists--now that's strength. In everyday language, we mostly use that word, `strength,' to refer to the physical prowess of athletes or to large shows of material force such as military might or a strong dollar. We think of strength only as something you can see, feel, hear or touch.

But our notion of strength is like the guy who tries too hard to impress with too much puffing of the chest, boasting and aggressive posturing. We've all seen him in action, and we all know that the person who really makes things happen is a very different kind of leader, one who moves others to action simply by knowing how to be still, open and receptive.

Of course, I'm borrowing here from Chinese philosophy, where yang is the sun and yin is the deep roots beneath the dark soil. In reality, one force is no better than the other, and both are necessary for survival. Night turns into day, winter into spring, action inside of surrender, stillness inside of movement--esoteric concepts that tend to go over our heads.

The truth is, in our quest to box strength into a predictable testosterone-type package, we've erased much of King's most radical message. We've lost sight of his patience and humility in a time of war, his powerful strength through non-action, his introspection and stillness. We've lost sight of that force that lies beneath the surface, his roots in the dark soil.

There's an old adage that says `To a person who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' We Americans have become that person, but Martin Luther King Jr. held a more powerful tool in his hand. His strength lay just beneath the surface, like the earth that feeds us. His strength was his faith, quiet, deep and sure.

GORDON: Kristal Brent Zook is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a contributing writer for Essence magazine.

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