Today we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although King is widely respected for his work and leadership during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, not as many people know about his public shift in focus in his final year. Specifically, he began publicly opposing American military involvement in Vietnam and strongly advocating for better treatment of poor people.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
The way King saw it, since he had spent much of his life advocating for equality and nonviolence, it only made sense to extend those principles to the people of Vietnam. King also believed the war to be hostile to poor people, arguing that the money spent on fighting the war was diverting money that could help poor people at home. Interestingly enough, Johnson himself acknowledged as much in his final years.
Nonetheless, many people who had previously supported Dr. King were not prepared to follow him in this new direction. President Johnson stopped talking to him, believing King to be ungrateful for Johnson’s help in passing key civil rights legislation. King was also criticized in leading newspapers, including a scathing editorial in the New York Times. Even many in the African-American leadership establishment who had previously marched by King’s side distanced themselves from his remarks on Vietnam.
King’s critics tended to focus on his claim that the war in Vietnam and the struggles of African-Americans and poor people at home were linked. But it’s worth noting that:
- A disproportionate number of military recruits come from poor backgrounds.
- The military is often exploited for less than noble ends by the government.
It’s fairly common knowledge that Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, but less commonly known is why he was there. He was there to support a local sanitation workers’ strike. The workers were striking for more equal treatment and better working conditions.
The incident that triggered the whole thing happened on February 1, 1968. There was heavy rain in Memphis that day, and many sanitation workers were sent home. However, black employees were only paid for 2 hours, while white employees received a full day’s pay. Also, 2 black employees were killed when the compactor mechanism in a trash truck was triggered accidentally.
Initially, the workers tried to negotiate with Memphis mayor Henry Loeb, but Mayor Loeb took a hardline stance, refusing to recognize the union or offer improved conditions. Dr. King was brought in to shine a light on the workers’ plight by leading a peaceful march. Unfortunately, violence broke out at the demonstration, and a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by the police.
Loeb called for martial law to be imposed, and about 4000 National Guard troops were brought in for a few days. They were withdrawn on April 2. The following day, King gave his famous Mountaintop speech, where he outlined his vision for the future and acknowledged he might not have much time left. Indeed, he was assassinated the next day.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led a march in Memphis on April 8 to honor her husband’s memory and continue to advocate for the striking workers. A settlement was finally reached on April 16, in which the City Council agreed to recognize the union and offer better pay.
While Dr. King is often upheld today as a symbol of peace and nonviolence, those things shouldn’t be confused with politeness or being unwilling to ruffle some feathers. Although the saying has its roots elsewhere, I’ve heard several members of the clergy say that the purpose of their work is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I like to think Dr. King would have been proud of his work in that area.
Does this give you a new perspective on Dr. King? Share your thoughts in the comments!