NEAL CONAN, host:
In 1967, a year to the day before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech that denounced America's war in Vietnam. The message directly challenged the president who'd taken great political risks to support civil rights legislation and also challenged many of his colleagues in the movement who've called it a tactical mistake. The speech and its echoes for Afghanistan and Iraq are the subject of "Tavis Smiley Reports MLK: A Call to Conscience."
If you remember the speech, tell us what it meant at that time, and does the principle of nonviolence apply in the age of al-Qaida? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tavis Smiley joins us today from the Sheryl Flowers Studios in Los Angeles. "MLK: A Call to Conscience" premieres on PBS tomorrow night. Check your local listings.
And Tavis, nice to have you back in the program.
Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Host, "The Tavis Smiley Show"): Neal, always an honor to be on with you. How are you, sir?
CONAN: I'm very well. And yourself?
Mr. SMILEY: I'm doing the best I can.
CONAN: Well, take us back to 1967. This speech was enormously controversial. Martin Luther King, who was already beginning to lose some of his influence, nevertheless made a huge challenge to the establishment.
Mr. SMILEY: Indeed he did, Neal. He had fallen off already the list, as you mentioned, had already fallen off the list of the most admired Americans as tallied by Gallup every year. So he was no longer on that particular list. And I think most Americans know the "I Have A Dream" speech. I've always argue that Dr. King is the greatest American we've ever produced. That's my own personal assessment. But certainly one of the greatest orators of our time. And so I think most Americans, Neal, know the "I Have A Dream" speech. A few other Americans know, of course, the "Mountaintop" speech given the night before he's assassinated in Memphis. But most Americans, I think, do not know this speech, "Beyond Vietnam."
It was, to your early appoint, the most controversial speech he ever gave. It was the speech he labored over the most. He rarely gave speeches from a text. This speech was written and basically read word for word so that they could have a copy to give to mainstream newspapers across the country for their consideration, because King did not want to be misquoted...
Mr. SMILEY: ...or misunderstood, although that didn't work. But it ends up being the most controversial speech. After he gives it, 168 major newspapers the next day denounce him. The New York Times calls it wasteful and self-defeating. The Washington Post says he has done a discredit to himself, to his people, to his country. He would no longer be respected. And that's just the Times and the Post.
Mr. SMILEY: Yeah. But LBJ disinvites him to the White House. It basically ruined their working relationship. And the last poll taken in his life by Harris, the Harris Poll, Neal, found that nearly three quarters of the American people, nearly three quarters, had turned against Martin on this issue, and 55 percent of his own people, black folk, had turned against him. So this was a huge, huge speech that got Martin King in more trouble than anything he had ever said or done.
CONAN: And one thing that I was unaware of was the timing of the speech in that he had wanted to say something along these lines. Of course, the Nobel Peace Laureate, a man who clearly believed in nonviolence down to his very soul...
Mr. SMILEY: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: ...but he'd wanted to give that speech two years earlier.
Mr. SMILEY: He'd wanted to give it two years earlier and had attempted a dry run at this speech, to your appoint, Neal, a couple of years prior to when he gave it. The problem was that practically everyone in his inner circle - not all, there was James Bevel and a couple of others -but practically everyone in his inner circle advised him strongly not to give this speech.
One of his great advisers and great admirers, Stanley Levison, who was always with Dr. King in his corner, was against Martin giving this speech. So practically everybody in his inner circle was against him giving it - one, because they knew the kind of pushback he was going to get. And secondly, so many civil rights leaders were opposed to him giving it because LBJ had been the best president to black people on civil rights. He passed the Voting Rights Act. He passed the Civil Rights Act. And so the question was, Martin, why would you antagonize the president who has been our friend?
So practically everybody was opposed to him giving this speech. And he starts out in the opening line at Riverside Church by saying: I am here tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.
CONAN: And the place - choice of place is very interesting too. The Riverside Church donated largely with Rockefeller money.
Mr. SMILEY: That's right. It was a wonderful, I think, place to give the speech in the sense that it's pretty cavernous. There were a lot of people inside. They brought in extra chairs. Hundreds of folks listened outside on loudspeakers. So it was a great turnout. And King had preached at this church any number of times before, of course. But there was a great turnout for the speech. But they chose Riverside because King was going to be speaking some days later at a huge rally and march in New York City, and they knew that that rally was going to bring out a different kind of element, a more controversial element.
So Martin's advisors basically said, if you are intent on giving the speech, at least allow us to craft a speech and to create a setting that will allow you to speak to clergy members and laity so at least before you get to this rally that we know is going to be controversial, we could at least roll this thing out with a different kind of a crowd. Of course, again, that philosophy, when the papers got a hold of him the next day, that strategy didn't work so well.
CONAN: Indeed. And at that march, he knew there would be people, as you point out in the film, waving Vietnamese flags and chanting...
Mr. SMILEY: That's right.
CONAN: ...Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win, and that sort of thing and it would clearly be taken in a very different context. Well, it was taken in that context, anyway. It was a tactical mistake. However, you argue strongly in the film that it was completely consistent with the nature and the character of Dr. King and something he needed to say.
Mr. SMILEY: Indeed, he did. And his argument, basically, was that I cannot, as a practitioner and a true believer in nonviolence, espouse that nonviolent philosophy in our movement and then somehow sit idly by when I see violence being engaged around the world. Martin built his speech that night, Neal, around three major points: around increasing militarism, around escalating poverty and around the issue of racism.
And he said these three issues of racism and poverty and militarism are going to destroy this nation. And we are spending money for a war abroad that ought to be spent for the war on poverty here at home. And I can't tell young black men, who are being denied right here in the streets of America, that they should offer themselves up and to sign themselves up to go - to do harm to people around the world who they do not know.
Keep in mind now that 1967, Neal, as you know, is the same year that Muhammad Ali, the world champion, decides to not accept that draft to go and fight in Vietnam. So 60 year(ph) is really, really a hot year here around this particular issue. But Martin understood very clearly that what we ought to be doing at home is being - we are being distracted, rather, by our engagement around the world. And what really got him to the point of figuring that he really, really had to address this again back to the children, he couldn't say to young folks in this country who were being denied, that they should engage nonviolence as a philosophy when he saw the children, when he saw these pictures of these Vietnamese children being bombed and the impact - the effect that napalm was having on their bodies. When he saw those pictures, there's a very famous picture, Neal, that we all know of a Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets who had just been, you know, had been victimized as had her village by these napalm attacks. Those pictures turned Dr. King's stomach. And it was on that occasion that he - when he saw those pictures, said, I have to speak out about this. And so he does in New York City.
CONAN: We're talking with Tavis Smiley about his PBS special, "Tavis Smiley Reports MLK: A Call to Conscience." 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's get Howard(ph) on the line. Howard's calling us from South Bend.
HOWARD (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, there.
HOWARD: How are you doing, Tavis? This is Howard, which you know me. But what I want - I think the question - I've always thought that Dr. King, that that speech about Vietnam was his best speech in my mind. (Unintelligible) on this program about, you know, the chances he took and even, you know, speaking truth to power to LBJ helped him so much in civil rights. I've always thought that was, to me, his best speech, his most consequential speech, even better than I have a dream in the mountain top speech. That's what I feel.
Mr. SMILEY: Yeah. No, Howard, I thank you for your phone call. One of the things, I hope, Neal, will happen here is that when people get a chance to see the special, they will be moved - I think they will be -to Google or Bing, whatever search engine you use, to go online, because the speech is so readily available, Neal, as you know.
CONAN: Oh, the audio is terrible, though. That's the problem with it.
Mr. SMILEY: We - let me just tell you this. We had to do a whole lot of work in the booth trying to get that audio right. Because, to your point now, one, I want people to go online and read the speech so you can see the text for yourself. But two, to the audio, there are only less than 10 minutes of this speech that got covered. For as popular as King was, he was a Nobel laureate, there were only one or two news crews who actually came to see the speech that night, Neal. And they, as news crews tend to do, they stayed to get just enough B-roll, as we call it...
Mr. SMILEY: ...for the news that night. But they didn't stay for the speech in its entirety. So all that we have is less than 10 minutes of video of the speech. But the entire speech, of course, thankfully, was recorded on audio. But I'm hoping that people will get a chance, once they see the speech, they'll be moved to go read the speech and to make comparisons, Neal. Let me say this right quick: The comparisons between what King was addressing then about militarism, poverty and racism sound familiar 45 years later.
When you read the speech, if you replace the word Vietnam, every time it pops up, with the word Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, you will be - it will blow your mind at how King, where he alive today at 81, could really stand up and give that same speech and just replace, again, Vietnam with Iraq and Afghanistan. So you got a Nobel laureate named King, a war president with a Nobel Prize named Obama, for all that we have done over the last two years to wed King and Obama together on T-shirts and everywhere else, were King alive today at 81, he and Obama would have a tension point, Neal, on this issue.
CONAN: Howard, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Indeed, you play parts of President Obama's speech to the Nobel Committee there in Stockholm where he received the award.
Mr. SMILEY: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: Indeed, it was Oslo. Excuse me. But anyway, where he says, I am mindful of those who spoke at this podium, this spot before me, including Martin Luther King and that I stand on his shoulders as a champion of civil rights. Nevertheless, I am in a different position as the president of the United States. As the head of state, I cannot necessarily embrace the same principles that, as you point out, Martin Luther King, a prophet, an outsider could embrace.
Mr. SMILEY: And therein lies the rub. And when you see the piece on "Lens" tonight that's the part of the speech that set off so many of those who are in King's inner circle, so many scholars who have written about King. That's what set so many of them off. Had the president stopped by giving Martin King his just respect - as he did, to his credit - it would have been okay. But when he turns the corner and then says, essentially, that Martin's philosophy wouldn't work in today's world, he goes on to say that Dr. King didn't know al-Qaida, as if to suggest that Martin didn't understand evil, that Martin didn't understand violence, that he himself had not been subjected to it. He was stabbed at one time. His house was bombed.
He gave a famous speech about the fact that he - when stabbed in New York at a book signing, the blade was just a scintilla away from his aorta. He turned that into a great speech when he got out of the hospital. Because he received a letter from a little white girl who said, Dr. King, I read the newspaper that had you sneezed that blade would've moved, ruptured your aorta and you would've drowned in your own blood. And King gives a great speech out of that hospital called "If I Had Sneezed." It's a powerful refrain, Neal, about what would've happened in his life, what he would've missed if he had sneezed at that very moment.
So King understood violence. Of course, he's assassinated in Memphis a year to the day later after giving this speech. So when the president suggests - and whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally diminishes in that Nobel speech Martin's powerful, nonviolent philosophy, it tweaked some people, and you'll see that in the presentation Wednesday night.
CONAN: We (unintelligible) to see it. We're talking with Tavis Smiley. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Walt(ph). And Walt's with us from Cortez in Colorado.
WALT (Caller): Yes. Sorry, I'm a little bit emotional here. I just wanted to say that I was an 18-year-old Marine in Vietnam when the speech was given, and I didn't hear it until three or four years ago. And about a month after that speech was given, I was wounded. And after I was wounded, we had four or five 100-pound bomb dropped on us, and 10 Marines were killed outright and 24 were wounded.
And there was a 18-year-old black Marine that picked me up since I couldn't walk, got me away from bombs and saved my life. I feel that Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali are two of the, you know, greatest Americans we've ever had. So, that's all I had to say. Thank you.
CONAN: Walt, thank you. And thank you for sharing what had to be a difficult story to tell. We appreciate that.
Mr. SMILEY: Yeah, Walt, I thank you for sharing that story as well, for being courageous to tell it, number one. I want to thank you, as I know listeners do as well, for your service to this country. And that is precisely what concerned Dr. King so much, that these young boys were being sent halfway around the world to fight a war that was unwinnable, that resources were being used there that should've been used here at home. And King was prescient on this.
As we all know, Neal, before he died, Robert McNamara, the Defense secretary that had Walt and others over in Vietnam, before he died, of course, announced that he was wrong. That Vietnam was a mistake. So even McNamara eventually comes around to that point. But this is, again, precisely what King was concerned about, putting the lives of everyday Americans on the line in a fight that was not winnable and a war that was unjust.
CONAN: And I think a lot of people will see your parallels regarding Iraq, where, indeed, the United States was the aggressor in that conflict. Afghanistan, not so much. Twin towers were planned from Afghanistan.
Mr. SMILEY: Well, I think the question is whether or not - I hear your point, Neal, and I take it. I guess the question now is whether or not Afghanistan is a war of necessity or a war of choice.
President Obama, this is one campaign promise that he has kept. He did say he was going to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, so he's kept that promise. The question is, is it a war of necessity or a war of choice at this point? And number two, at what cost? At what cost? And that's the issue that King was raising. And thirdly, I think the main point here in this MLK "Beyond Vietnam" speech is that there is another way. And I think that if nothing else what we need to wrestle with in a contemporary sense, Neal, is the question of whether or not there is another way that King would have us consider were he allowed to do.
CONAN: And there's an interesting point you also make in the film that -or at least some of the participants in your film make - that were he alive today and saying the kinds of things you would expect him to say, given that speech, he probably would not be invited to many Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
Mr. SMILEY: It's a powerful point made by Clayborne Carson at Stanford who is in charge, as you know, Neal, of the King papers. But Carson makes a powerful point in the special that you just identified, about whether or not Martin King himself would be welcome in some of these mega-churches, at certain political gatherings. If Dr. King were to say to the organizers of these events, I'd like to show up at your church on Sunday morning, at your rally this weekend, and here's what I want to say, there is a good argument to be made that Dr. King himself might not be welcome - might not be allowed to say what was in his heart, what his conscience really was, given the political correctness of the world that we live in today.
CONAN: Tavis Smiley, author, journalist, political commentator, host of his talk show on PBS, joins us today from the Sheryl Flowers Studios in Los Angeles. Thanks, as always for your time.
Mr. SMILEY: Neal, thank you for the opportunity.
CONAN: "MLK: A Call to Conscience" premieres on PBS tomorrow night. Check your local listings.
Tomorrow, the latest installment with the political junkie. Ken Rudin joins guest host Rebecca Roberts. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.