News Release

Martin Luther King and the Decline of Black Politics

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Many have noted that President Barack Obama has begun addressing racial issues after a long silence on the issue.

KEVIN GRAY, kevinagray57 at gmail.com
Based in South Carolina, Gray is author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics and The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama. Gray notes the continued relevance of King’s message, citing some of his overlooked final speeches such as “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated:

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. 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, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. …”

King gave his speech before the group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He said to them: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality — and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. …

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores … A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.”

After King was attacked for his remarks at Riverside, including by media such as the New York Times and Time magazine, he spoke out even more passionately:

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. … There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that would praise you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward [segregationist Selma, Ala. sheriff] Jim Clark!’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children!’ There is something wrong with that press! …

“I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. … When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.”
— From Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967.

Excerpts of audio on YouTube.

In a special program, Tavis Smiley reported that by the end of his life, as he was focusing on war and poverty as well as racism “King had almost three-quarters … of the American people turned against him, 55 percent of his own people [African Americans] turned against him.” See: “Obama vs. Martin Luther King?”

King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was addressed to clergy who stated that they were pro-reform, but were advocating a slower approach than King, calling his actions “unwise and untimely.”