Tonight Tavis Smiley will do a show on Martin Luther King’s speech on Vietnam, a year to the day before he died (April 4, 1967), It will be on PBS at 7 o’clock Denver time –ch.6 - and elsewhere you can check the listings. Here is a note from Gloria Smith at the Veterans of Hope with links:
Please tune in to PBS tomorrow, Wednesday, March 31st, for Tavis Smiley's new special on Martin Luther King's Opposition to the Vietnam War... (includes an interview with Vincent Harding)
In Denver, it's on RMPBS Channel 6 at 7pm. To check your local listings if you are outside of Denver please follow the link below.
For more information on this and other forthcoming events please become a fan of the Veterans of Hope on facebook at
King’s speech lives to this day. The spiritual death he speaks of is still upon us (a country that spends more on war than on program of social welfare is approaching spiritual death) as we can see in Iraq and its consequences. Despite the resilience of electing Barack Obama, it is still present in America's five wars and occupations, its $708 billion war budget (nearly 3 times the height of the Cold War budget), his inability, as an anti-Iraq war candidate, to extract himself even from there -his "objective" is to leave 50,000 occupying troops in Iraq this summer. The demonic suction pump of the war budget still diminishes programs for the poor, even the nonetheless very decent health care reform.
My correspondent and friend Bruce Fetter, an historian and Professor of African Studies at the University of Wisconsin wrote to me questioning my poem about King V I o l en ce here. He suggested that it mistakenly connects LBJ with King’s murder. But it misses the point to agree or disagree with a poem (Pounds Canto 45 with usura came not Piera della Francesca is a striking example of an anti-semitic poem that one would disagree with – but it is still a poem in a series of poems. If I wrote a poem, probably “disagreement” (does the poem need to say what you believe?) is not a response to it as a poem (more sharply, probably isn’t an appropriate response). I often write poems with some oblique political significance as do many others, but simply “political poems” are really leaflets or pamphlets in gaudy dress; they are not poems.
Vincent Harding is a Mennonite. He once went with one other black and three white Mennonites driving as an integrated group through the South. When they came to Atlanta, they called and spoke with Coretta. They were invited to King’s home and spent an afternoon with him. As they were getting up to go, Martin took Vincent aside and said: why don’t you move to Atlana? So Vincent and Rosemary came to live a few doors from Martin and Coretta. As I described in ch. 2 of Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, Vincent was the first in the civil rights movement to speak out against the War in Vietnam. His two articles in Niebuhr’s Christianity and Crisis naming Western arrogance, are the finest indictments of that corruption in the journal (1965). If one attends to the moving words of King’s Riverside speech, one will find the insight about “Western arrogance” repeated (it is also one of the themes today of Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power which criticizes the racist American belief that it has the military power to shape, at gunpoint, anyone and anything).
King and Harding talked all the time. They were practically alter egos. King was also on the road 300 days a year in the movement. His being in the Birmingham City Jail gave him time to write his marvelous reflective “Letter” on civil disobedience on the back of a newspaper, explaining why black people, as well as saving the distorted souls and personalities of oppressors, cannot wait for relief of this oppression. Martin asked Vincent to write the draft of the speech.
Vincent drove with my family down to Colorado Springs where we both spoke at a rally about the Iraq War February 16, 2003. There were worldwide rallies (2 milion in Madrid, 1 1/2 million in New York, several hundred thousand in Delhi and so forth). Though peaceful and in principle nonviolent, the march following the rally was teargassed by the Colorado Spring police (the only place in the country where this happened). Both of us spoke at the rally (it was an honor to speak with Vincent; I remember hearing him at a rally against the first Gulf War in 1990 ). Vincent described to me the sorrow that his words – Martin added to and transformed them, but it was in the same spirit - signed King's death warrant. If you listen closely tonight, you will hear even in that one minute linked to above, some of that insight and sorrow. Martin, the great spiritual leader, was not a politician in a narrow sense, but rather a transformative statemen. Read Harding’s poetic The Inconvenient Hero on how King changed in the last year of his life, leading a movement of the poor, questioning capitalism - and why, on the face of it – consider right now – would one not question capitalism?, and being gunned down as he spoke with and for despised sanitation workers, mainly black, in Memphis.
Vincent told me he once asked the great Jim Lawson, the man who went to jail for opposing Korea, went to India to learn about satyagraha (civil disobedience) came back to Nashville and taught Diane Nash and other students how to resist nonviolently, how to integrate the lunch counters, and was now in Memphis and had invited King to come, if he blamed himself for Martin’s death. No, he said, Martin did what he chose to do.
Well, King told Coretta he would die by the age of 40. They blew up bombs outside his hotel room, stabbed him, plotted to assassinate him from Montgomery when he was 26 to the day the bullet that was chasing him “found him” in Vincent’s profound way of speaking to Smiley. Martin stood out (so did my friend Andy Goodman and others, but many, endangered or in the eye of the storm at times, their skulls fractured as John L. Lewis here, nonetheless lived). Martin was a great leader – “the greatest leader my state and perhaps my country has produced” said Jimmy Carter at the memorial service for Coretta Scott King –replied even in Montgomery to a reporter who asked him whether he was afraid “no, I am not afraid. This is a great cause and I am a part of it.” But he knew his time was not long (that he would not get to the moutaintop with "us").
In his Autobiography, King speaks of a moment when he was afraid for his children (that fear caused Malcolm to call off his bodyguards at the Audubon Church and allow the assassins to kill him there instead of bombing his home near where his daughters' slept - see Manning Marable's forthcoming biography). King had a vision in his kitchen. It filled him that to be a sacrifice for all of us was his calling, that the great words he spoke, that he was given to speak, that overshadow the words of many, meant also that he would die young.
Lawson’s answer which Vincent found helpful is part of the story. American racism – as American as apple pie as H. Rap Brown put it – murdered Martin Luther King. But he is part of the great storm against racism coming from the Revolution and John Brown and the civil rights movement, expressed in the election of Barack Obama 40 years after King was murdered. That storm has made a difference but far from cured the horrific racism which still prevails in America (4 in 100 poor black teenagers find jobs, said a New York Times editorial, December 22, 2009). We are all a part of this, we do not do enough – do not know how to do enough to change it. That America sacrificed even a Martin Luther King on the altar of racism and profit is true, and we all as Americans share in it.
Thich Nat Hanh came to Denver to speak (he does yearly in his efforts to heal America as France of its crimes against Indochina/Vietnam). I heard him help a soldier who distraughtly told him in the presence of hundreds that he murdered a child in a faraway place thirty years ago (yet so near that the murder was in the agony of his whole being), find a way -“you must work with Vietnamese orphans, he said, and “see me afterwards.” Vincent introduced Hanh's talk.
Hanh, he said, had watched his fellow Buddhists sit in akshobya position saturated in gasoline, and burn themselves to protest the war. That was not the way, Hanh decided, and came to the United States. He met with King and King resolved that he had to speak against the war. Vincent mentioned that Thich Nat Hanh returned four months before King was assassinated. He stood up in a meeting and spoke of what King’s words meant to the Vietnamese. “You are,” he said, “a Boddhistattva.” It was good King heard those words (he was also just a man). 4 months…Speaking out and organizing against the war in Iraq, one of Hanh’s thoughts is that we have to work, each of us, in our lives, to prevent the next war. It will take all of us doing something to break our ties to oil (down to the destructive agriculture in which we create strange “food-like” substances, not quite corn anymore, to sweeten and saturate the other chemicals of fast food with which many of us starve and poison ourselves).