FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Today is the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would have been 79 years old. He may be the nation's best-known pacifist. For him, non-violence was a major principle and a key strategy to force social change. But Dr. King didn't limit his pacifism to civil rights. It also motivated his public stance against the war in Vietnam. On April 4th, 1967, he went to Riverside Church in New York City and publicly announced his opposition to the war.
(Soundbite of speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence")
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr. (Leader, American Civil Rights Movement): Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?
CHIDEYA: That was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech he called "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
We've got with us Clayborne Carson. He's a professor of history at Stanford University. He also directs the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute there. He's with us now.
Thanks for coming on.
Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (History, Stanford University; Director, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute): Good to talk to you.
CHIDEYA: So that speech was given in 1967, but Dr. King had been concerned about the military escalation in Vietnam for a couple of years. Was this the first time he publicly stated his position?
Prof. CARSON: Well, his position evolved overtime. I mean, he was always opposed to the war, but he felt early in the war that perhaps - he believed Johnson that negotiations were going on and that perhaps they should be given time to work. He talked with U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg and got some reassurances. So he wanted Johnson's support for civil rights issues, and he felt that as long as there was hope that negotiations could work, he could - he should play down his dissent.
CHIDEYA: President Lyndon Johnson was a Southern Democrat who got the civil rights bill passed in 1964. Some people think that he was kind of dragged, kicking and screaming into being a civil rights supporter by, of course, the assassination of President Kennedy. How did Johnson react to King's public announcement about his views on the war?
Prof. CARSON: Very negatively, of course. Johnson was very much in favor of his war policy and felt that that was necessary for all of his supporters. And he was very disturbed that King began to dissent from the war policy. And when you combine that with what was going on in the cities, the rebellions that were going on in Newark and Detroit, and sending troops into the cities, and his sense that King, by identifying himself with the anti-war movement, was kind of fueling the climate of dissent, you know, that, I think, that led to him - Johnson - kind of giving a free rein to the FBI to go after all of the dissenters, and King was one of the targets.
CHIDEYA: Well, speaking of dissent, some members of Dr. King's own group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were opposed to his involvement with the anti-war movement.
Here's a little bit more from his Riverside speech.
(Soundbite of speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence")
Dr. KING: 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. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
CHIDEYA: He mentions sadness, and his cadence even sounds deeply saddened. What were the arguments between him and the people that he had held so close? How heated were they?
Prof. CARSON: They were very heated. But in both directions, he had members of his staff who are arguing that he should have taken the stand even earlier. So he was kind of torn in both directions. But I think what he was getting at there is that in his conception, he was a social gospel minister, and that that preceded all of his civil rights involvement.
In one of his statements, he says, you know, before I'm a civil rights leader, I am fundamentally a preacher of the gospel. And what he meant by that was that it was a gospel about taking the good news to the poor, and he meant the poor of the world. That was his central concern. To some degree, all of the 10 years that he has spent as a civil rights leader were a departure from where he really started as a minister, which was his self-conception as a social gospel preacher.
CHIDEYA: By social gospel - I mean there have been people who said Jesus was a radical. Is that what you're talking about?
Prof. CARSON: Exactly, that's what he's talking about. He says that, you know, some people got their revolutionary ideas from Marx, I got it from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And he really meant that. It was something deeply engrained.
We just published the six volume of the King papers. And one of the things that becomes clear is that from his teenage years, this is the central thread of his life, that he is - he sees Christianity as an alternative to communism, as an ideology of the poor and oppressed people of the world.
CHIDEYA: Very briefly, do you think that this contributed to threats against his life?
Prof. CARSON: Oh, of course. You know, there was always the racists out there who were trying to get rid of him because he was the civil rights leader. But I think there was always the charge that he was a communist, that he - which was far from the truth. I mean, he - as I said, he was trying to find an alternative to communism in terms of dealing with the gulf between rich and poor.
But the - once he took his stand on Vietnam, I think that kind of criticism stepped up. And I think his enemies multiplied because before, he had always gotten positive press in the north among the liberal newspapers. But after that, they attacked him too. So he really didn't have very many friends. And this is even before he goes into Memphis, then goes into the poor people's campaign…
CHIDEYA: Well, Professor, we have to…
Prof. CARSON: …lost even more friends.
CHIDEYA: …have to end it there. Thank you so much.
Prof. CARSON: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Clayborne Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.