How Politically Influential Was MLK? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was at a critical point in his political development just before his death. We examine how the Black Power movement affected his message.
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How Politically Influential Was MLK?

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How Politically Influential Was MLK?

How Politically Influential Was MLK?

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From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, new numbers show that more people are out of work. We'll look at why those with the least education are the hardest hit. But first...

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Leader, Civil Rights Movement; Baptist Minister; Winner, Nobel Peace Prize): We spend 322,000 dollars for each enemy we kill in Vietnam, while we spend, in the so-called war on poverty in America, only about 53 dollars for each person classified as poor.

BRAND: Dr. Martin Luther King speaking in Los Angeles a year before his assassination, 40 years ago today, April 4th, 1968. At that time, his voice still had that minister's cadence, but you can also hear the language of the political pragmatist King had become. To speak about Martin Luther King as the politician he became, I'm joined by NPR senior news analyst Juan Williams, and Juan is also the author of the book "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years." Welcome back to Day to Day, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Always good to be with you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, let's go back to that day, April 4th, 1968. Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, that day. Why was he there?

WILLIAMS: Dr. King had spoken the night before. He had given his famous "mountaintop" speech. He was going out to dinner with some friends that night, when he was assassinated on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. But he was, again, going to go back and speak, on behalf of the striking garbage workers the next day, before going on to Washington. And it's an interesting story in that he had been told not to come, that it was a labor issue, and he's a civil right leader.

And he said, you know what? Anytime that you have people working and unable to support their families, that's a human rights issue. That's a political issue. That's the kind of issue that I need to be involved with. And so, you can see King becoming much more there of someone who goes beyond the civil rights title to become somewhat of a public figure, if not a political figure, Madeleine.

BRAND: And that year, 1968, obviously, a presidential election year. Had King gotten involved in the presidential election politics of the time? Had he endorsed any of the contenders?

WILLIAMS: No, he hadn't endorsed anyone. But here was King becoming more involved, again, in politics, and in thought, about exactly where the party should be going. And in a large part, it was focused on his opposition to the Vietnam War and the pressure he was putting on President Johnson. And this is, again, one of those tremendously dynamic historical relationships.

President Johnson had been a real friend to the civil rights movement, but nonetheless, here was King challenging President Johnson. And then this week, I talked with Clarence B. Jones, who was King's attorney and a close adviser about just this point.

Mr. CLARENCE B. JONES (Civil Rights Activist; Former Counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr.; Author, "What Would Martin Say?"): At the time of his assassination, he was very much preoccupied with the opposition to war, fighting for peace, and equally concerned about poverty. And he would, of course, be concerned about mobilizing a massive campaign to deal with the inequity of wealth, the presence of poverty in our country.

WILLIAMS: And what you're hearing there, Madeleine, is that he's referring to King's Poor People's Campaign. That was the next stop that Martin Luther King had in mind after Memphis. He was going to go to Washington to lead the poor people's campaign, to really demonstrate to the nation's political leadership on Capitol Hill that poverty exists, and he was going to do so by constructing a city of shanties right on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. Again, you can see Dr. King extending the civil rights arena, now, to the national political stage.

BRAND: Now, at the same time, though, he had been criticized by some people in the civil rights movement for changing his focus a bit, away from social justice issues at home to being increasingly critical of the Vietnam War. What did he say in response to those criticisms?

WILLIAMS: Madeleine, he drew a connection between the war and the struggle for social justice at home. And we have a clip here that I think illustrates how he did that. It's from the speech he gave at Riverside Church a year to the day before his assassination.

(Soundbite of speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence")

Dr. KING: A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program, broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.

BRAND: So Juan, as we've been talking about, Martin Luther King was getting increasingly political. He was extremely powerful figure in American culture and American politics. Did he ever consider running for an office himself?

WILLIAMS: I posed that question to Reverend Walter Fauntroy. And Reverend Fauntroy first came to know Dr. King when he was an 18-year-old, organizer, a college kid, and Reverend King was all of 22, Madeleine. It's so interesting to just stop for a second and look back at how young these people were when they were making such American history. Reverend Fauntroy went on from the pulpit to a 20-year career in Congress, and he told me, he could imagine King seeking public office. He had high regard for King's political skills, and, well, here's some of what he said.

Reverend WALTER E. FAUNTROY (New Bethel Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.; Civil Rights Activist; Former Congressman): Martin Luther King, like Jesus, like Mahatma Gandhi, was a spiritual and political genius. And he'd made an art of it, in pricking the conscience and raising the consciousness of enough people in this country that enabled him and I to stand in the East Wing of the White House on July 2nd, 1964, when people are from all over the country were writing their members of Congress, don't let your name show up on my ballot unless you have passed that Civil Rights Act.

BRAND: And of course, that is the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, and July 2nd, the signing ceremony there at the White house. So, that capped his extraordinary legacy in terms of civil rights. What about his political legacy? How much of the political landscape of today can we attribute to his influence?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we can see it in so many ways. I think there's a larger group of people, larger array of possibilities, in terms of American leadership. In my conversation with Clarence Jones, I posed the question to him about political legacy, and here is how he answered it.

Mr. JONES: I don't think that Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton - I don't think they can have any possible question in their mind, that they would not be running a serious candidacy today, for the highest office, election of the president of the United States, but for the leadership and struggle of Martin Luther King in transforming the political landscape of this country.

In fact, every time I read or hear about voting, the primaries, and people say, well, you know, there's a high turnout and so forth. I say to myself, for an African-American, I don't understand why we have to deal with percentages. I don't understand why everybody doesn't register and everybody doesn't vote.

WILLIAMS: And that's what Martin King would be saying?

Mr. JONES: Oh, he would say, look, brother and sisters, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, there were approximately - maybe just about 300 black elected officials nationwide. Now, there's almost 10,000. OK? The reality of politics is the exercise of power. And unless you participate in this process, you are powerless.

WILLIAMS: Of course, that was King's attorney, Clarence Jones, suggesting that Dr. King would be so much involved with the political life of the country today at age 79 - that's how old he would be - and it's such a change from the guy who started at 25 years old, when he went to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and really didn't want to get involved in civil rights, much less politics.

But throughout his life, you can see how King evolved in to a much stronger political force in the country, and his notion of black liberation theology was one in which, you know, Jesus stood with the oppressed and it was an appeal to conscience of black and white Americans. And it led to the idea that you must be willing to make political sacrifice in order to deliver, and deliver in terms of opposition to the war, deliver in terms of funding for the poor, deliver in terms of justice for all. And I really think that's the legacy of Dr. King.

BRAND: Well, thank you Juan.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Madeleine. Thanks for doing this.

BRAND: My pleasure. That's NPR News analyst, Juan Williams. Also, author of the book, "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years." ..COST: $00.00

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