MLK Papers Go On Display

A collection of papers belonging to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. go on display at the Atlanta History Center Monday, on the national holiday honoring the civil rights leader. The papers include the draft of a famous speech from 1967 condemning the Vietnam War.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On this holiday morning, we want to take you back to April 4, 1967. That's when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to an audience of about 300 people at Riverside Church in New York City. Up until that year, King had been silent on the topic of America's involvement in Vietnam.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.

INSKEEP: A draft of that war speech and other famous King papers go on display today at the Atlanta History Center.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: King had been critical of the Vietnam War from the beginning, but he allowed his wife Coretta to be the one to speak openly about it until 1967. King said when he called for peace, people questioned his right to do so.

Dr. KING: Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I'm nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.

LOHR: King's faith commanded that he speak out, says Elizabeth Muller, co-curator of the King exhibit in Atlanta.

Ms. ELIZABETH MULLER: And there is a manuscript leaf that accompanies the heavily-amended version of the Riverside speech in which Dr. King has written out a heading, Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam. And the first reason that he gives is that thou shall not kill. Somewhere along the line people seem to have forgotten that he was a minister.

LOHR: There was another reason King opposed the war, says Stanford historian Clayborn Carson, director of the King Papers Project.

Professor CLAYBORN CARSON (Stanford University): King had spent the summer of 1966 in a ghetto in Chicago, and that had led him to understand the way in which the war was having this devastating effect on the inner city.

Dr. KING: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, what about Vietnam?

Prof. CARSON: He understood that he could not really make a strong argument against the racial violence at home unless he took a stand against the war.

LOHR: This stand cost Dr. King clout with the White House and with other civil rights leaders. Historians say President Lyndon Johnson was furious and felt betrayed after working so hard to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Carson says King did not back down.

Prof. CARSON: It is a warning, not simply about the Vietnam War, but about the wars that would come.

LOHR: This famous war speech and hundreds of other King papers are now at the Atlanta History Center in what curators say is the largest collection of King's work to be publicly displayed.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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