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Commentary: Memories of Martin Luther King and two Aprils

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Elliott Wright
Jan. 17, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By Elliott Wright*


On April 4, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful speech in opposition to the Vietnam War to 3,000 people attending a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at New York City’s Riverside Church.

A few days later, he defended his words at a midtown Manhattan press conference packed by news reporters including myself. I was Protestant-Orthodox editor for Religion News Service in 1967 and 1968 and was assigned to report on Martin Luther King’s opposition to Vietnam War.

The Riverside speech was not King’s first action in opposition to the war. He had earlier taken part in a war protest march in Chicago and given a strong anti-war speech in Los Angeles. But the thundering condemnation of the war on that April day, exactly a year before he was killed in Memphis, brought torrents of criticism.

We now know that then-President Lyndon Johnson, who supported civil rights legislation, had turned against King for daring to question White House military policy. The congressional and media “hawks” put the preacher from Atlanta in their sights. Much of the civil rights establishment accused King of abandoning the cause, claiming that the Vietnam conflict and civil rights were two different things. The New York Times took up the cry against King’s views on Vietnam.

His last few years were hard times for Martin King. His decision to take the civil rights movement to the streets of Chicago in 1966 did not produce the outpouring of support he expected, partly because of the covert opposition of Mayor Richard Daley. King’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience was being challenged by proponents of more militant confrontation. He was planning for a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C., a plan that lacked enthusiastic backing in some parts of the civil rights movement. The White House and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were relentless in their efforts to discredit King.

Those difficult days are closely examined in At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, the third volume of a history of the King years by Taylor Branch, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Branch explores the opposition King faced, the challenges he weathered in sorting out options, and the views of those around him.

April 3, 1968: Memphis. I have a dream: “I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

King was shot dead the next day while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking garbage workers.

On the early evening of April 4, 1968, Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America, was hosting a reception for the then-newly appointed Roman Catholic Archbishop (later Cardinal) Terrence Cooke of New York. The festivities were just getting under way at the Greek Church headquarters when the news swept the room: Martin King had been shot; perhaps he was dead. Gasps … an update: Yes, King was dead.

The Greek archbishop, who had marched with King at Selma, and Cardinal Cooke led the partygoers to a small chapel where the leaders of these church groups, so different from King’s Baptist background, fell upon their knees in prayer and lamentation. The interfaith guests did the same. The prayers and tears lasted for hours.

Martin Luther King Jr. had not taken the easy way.

He had not backed down on his opposition to the war.

He had not given up the appeal to nonviolence.

He had not bent down to the powers and principalities in Washington or at the New York Times.

Thirty-eight years later, the whole world knows King’s course was the right one. He reached the Promised Land; unfortunately, the national and global march toward civil and human rights still struggles toward Canaan’s edge.

*Wright is the information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News media contacts: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759; Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470; or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Resources
The King Center
Walking With King