If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are traveling to find a new sense of dignity… [so] I accept this aware today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history…I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction" (King, 1964).
On the subject of war, King received quite a bit of criticism when he came out against the war in Vietnam. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was to be assassinated, King spoke at a meeting of clergy and laity at the famous Riverside Church in New York City. The gathering in New York was part of the national movement against the war, and the fact that ministers, rabbis, priests and others in the public spotlight were organizing to put pressure on President Lyndon Johnson to end the war appealed to King.
The Civil Rights leader's speech was, as usual, full of passion, truth, and the writing that went into the speech had all the earmarks of the great man who penned those words. King quickly addressed the critics he knew would be out there: "Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say." He went on to deflect those who would say by coming out against the war he was aiding the communists that the South Vietnamese were battling against: This is not "an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue," he firmly intoned. The speech offered several reasons why a major civil rights leader would break from his theme of racial justice and speak out against an American military policy.
First, King saw that by funding the expensive war in Vietnam, the poverty program that had begun in the U.S. was "broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society that had gone mad on war" (McGee, 1999). Secondly, a "more tragic recognition of reality" hit King when we realized that the U.S. was "…taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."
His third reason came from his experience talking to "desperate, rejected and angry young men" in cities, whom he tried to convince not to use violence. He told them that change would not take place with guns and Molotov cocktails. Those men asked him in return what about the "massive does of violence" in Vietnam? "My own government," he asserted, is one of "the greatest purveyor[s] of violence in the world" and therefore, for the sake of the boys in "oppressed ghettos" he could not be silent.
The Nobel Prize he received brought him "a burden of responsibility," he mentioned. That prize was actually a "commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for 'the brotherhood of man.'" It clearly bothered King that the South Vietnamese government was "singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support"; the people in South Vietnam "watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees" (McGee).
In his prepared speech King demanded an "End" to "all bombing in North and South Vietnam." Somehow, he cried out, "this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam."
It is fitting to conclude this paper with King's visit to India, home of Gandhi. The first attempt on his life is featured here, and while it delayed his trip to India, it was among the most frightening and yet poignant of his many experiences as a leader. Earlier in his career King had a chance to visit India, the place that Gandhi, using non-violence as a tactic, led to freedom and independence from the British Empire. King had used Gandhi's organizing strategies and non-violent approaches throughout his career as an advocate for justice, and it was his dream to visit India. King's writings about that trip were published in the book A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (James Melvin Washington, editor). Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlan Nehru, had visited the U.S. In 1956, and according to King's essay "…was gracious enough to say that he wished that he and I had met." So arrangements were being made through diplomatic channels to have Dr. King travel to India.
However, his travel plans were "knocked out" in September, 1958, while he sat autographing books at a store in Harlem when an African-American woman, Mrs. Izola Ware Curry, stabbed him with a Japanese letter opener. He later wrote that "the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade [of the letter opener] was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood -- that's the end of you. It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had sneezed, I would have died" (www.thesmokinggun.com). In his speech the night before he died in Memphis on April 4, 1968, King's speech included the lines that "If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze" (www.thesmokinggun.com).
Prior to his release from Harlem Hospital King wrote a letter thanking the many people who had sent good wishes and flowers. In his patented way of removing himself from the centerpiece of the moral discussion, he explained that "The pathetic aspect of this experience is not the injury to one individual. It demonstrates that a climate of hatred and bitterness so permeates areas of our nation that inevitably deeds of extreme violence will erupt. Today it was I. Tomorrow it could be another leader, man, woman or child…" (Smoking Gun).
Meantime, on February 3, 1959, King and his wife Coretta flew to India, where "virtually every door was open to us…we were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset" (King, 1991, p. 24). The Indian people love to listen to the Negro spirituals. Therefore, Coretta ended up singing as much as I lectured." King was thrilled to "be in Gandhi's land, to talk with his son, his grandsons, his cousins… [and] I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom" (King, p. 25).
As King left this physical world on that horrific night in 1968, those who loved him, followed him and believed in him were also certain that nonviolence is the best weapon against oppression. Yes, he died through violence, but his example was through peace, and that will never be rejected or forgotten.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Acceptance Speech / Nobel Peace Prize 1964." Retrieved Dec. 6,
2009, from http://nobelprize.org.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]." African Studies Center
University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved Dec. 6, 2009, from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/articles_gen/letter_birmingham.html.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Statement issued by Dr. King from Harlem Hospital Tuesday,
September 30, 1958 / Kingly Note Carefully." Retrieved Dec. 8, 2009, from http://www.thesmokinggun.com/mlk/statement1.html.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981.
McGee, Art. "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence / By Rev. Martin Luther King 4 April
1967." Michigan State University. Retrieved Dec. 7, 2009, from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html.
The Smoking Gun. "MLK Jr.: The First Attempt." Retrieved Dec. 7, 2009, from http://www.thesmokingfun.com/mlk/mlk.html.
Washington, James Melvin. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperCollins,…