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Last Updated on January 16, 2022 by BVN

Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | Black Voice News and IE Voice

Martin Luther King Jr. faced many difficulties in the final years of his ministry. He had accomplished much yet the final years would see him questioning his convictions as never before. as he sought to extend the movement.

Poor People’s Campaign

The Poor People’s Campaign was an outgrowth of the civil rights campaign and although it may seem now that King received the support of the majority of the Black clergy, many did not support the work he did with the poor. 

The 2018 HBO documentary King In The Wilderness speaks to the resistance he received from the Black clergy in Chicago while attempting to draw attention to the conditions of the poor in the city. King and his staff sought to meet the needs of the poor by living in the same conditions, moving into the dilapidated housing they lived in and providing direct assistance to those in need. Many of the local ministry thought he was a usurper and trouble maker upsetting the established order. In the end King was able to secure an agreement to build better housing for the poor.

In the 2018 documentary King In The Wilderness many members of the Black clergy in Chicago saw him as a usurper and trouble maker upsetting the established order when he attempted to draw attention to the conditions of the poor in the city (source: youtube.com)

Considered by some as out of step

As the civil rights movement shifted King found himself being viewed as out of step with some members of  the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a younger contingent of the civil rights movement who wanted faster change. The more strident message of the younger activists made King’s message seem tired and less effective. He had to balance his message of coalition building and non-violence against those who wanted more.

In the meantime, as the peace movement gained momentum King decided to support those who argued against continuing the Vietnam War and found himself out of favor with many who had supported his past efforts. His financial, individual and institutional  support disappeared as many disagreed with his stance on the issues of the day

A controversial speech 

Vietnam had become increasingly controversial, people were protesting the war and young men had been dying for goals which were not clear. King had considered carefully whether or not to speak out on the Vietnam War. Although his wife Coretta Scott King had been active in the peace movement previously, King had been cautioned against speaking out for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Once he made the decision to speak on the subject he chose an anti war discussion at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 to make his feelings known. 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

In  the speech, Beyond Vietnam, King said in part, “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.”

King continued. “Then came the buildup in Vietnam.” He spoke about watching the poverty program “broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.” He said he realized the nation would never invest in programs for the poor as long as the war continued to consume the nation’s resources and human treasure and as a result, he was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor.  

King went on to stress, “Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their [Black] sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”

King pointed to how the nation was sending young Black men,  “crippled by our society” more than eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Vietnam they did not have in Georgia and East Harlem. 

On April 4, 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what many consider his seminal and most controversial speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, NY, against the War in Vietnam. He was assassinated exactly one year to the day of this speech. (source: Twitter)

“[W]e have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

King advised that as Black and white soldiers burned huts in poor Vietnam villages together, they would hardly even live on the same block together in Chicago, for example.  Adding, that he “could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

King paid the price for speaking out, labeled unpatriotic, a communist and more. Many who once stood with him would not return his calls nor provide continued support. Although prior to the Riverside speech, King was in contact with then President Lyndon Johnson, that came to an end. The Washington Post  stated the speech at Riverside Church made King “…persona non grata…” at the Johnson Administration White House

Even the NAACP was skeptical of  taking a stance on the war, feeling it was a mistake to involve civil rights with the anti-war movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. was roundly criticized by many for taking a strong stand against the war in Vietnam  though by the war’s end in 1975 many had come around to his position. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives during the war including a disproportionate number of Blacks (source: tumbrl.com).

Later, many would come to agree with King’s stance and after the withdrawal from Vietnam precipitated by the peace treaty signed in Paris, others would have their own criticisms of the war. 

Today The Martin Luther King Jr Center for Nonviolent Social Change continues the work he began.

His legacy endures

King’s image is a staple in pop culture and is used to sell everything from t-shirts to fast food, music and even a video game (source: etsy.com).

King’s speeches, images and quotes have been used to argue both sides of contentious issues. They have also been used to inspire action and to argue against it.  King has become a ubiquitous staple in popular culture, used to sell T-shirts, fast food, music and even a video  game.

King’s image is perhaps more familiar than the things he believed in and worked for. When facing the issues we are presented with today, it may be worthwhile to recall that before the national holiday, King spent his last days in controversy and without the approval or accolades which would come later. The fact that MLK day exists at all is remarkable and should tell us something about who he was and why he is celebrated.