Merlene Davis: MLK leaned on his faith, not man, in taking Vietnam War stance

Thomas Tolliver held a sign with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail during a gathering in August at Lexington's Courthouse Plaza to commemorate the 50th anniversary March on Washington.
Thomas Tolliver held a sign with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail during a gathering in August at Lexington's Courthouse Plaza to commemorate the 50th anniversary March on Washington. Herald-Leader

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that we will celebrate Monday is only half the man I admire.

The man tomorrow will be dressed up and toned down so as to be more palatable to the general public.

The King I admire, however, risked everything, including the love of the black people he worked so hard to help, to stand up for his Christian convictions.

King believed in non-violence, in social and economic justice and in ending the Vietnam War.

He knew taking the reins of a fledgling movement to change entrenched government laws and policies which justified race-based oppression was dangerous. But he was able to mobilize a large group of people who shored up that non-violent movement for social justice, people who had tried before to amass support, but who had failed.

That's the man we celebrate on Monday, and deservedly so. No one has been able to build such a coalition before or since, or to have a line of demarcation that so glaringly points out where this country stood before his leadership and how this country has changed since that leadership.

But the man I so admire is the one in the latter days of his life who, when all that support waned and when journalists no longer trumpeted his vision, stood strong and nearly alone, buttressed only by his faith in God.

My favorite King speech is his "Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence," which he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year before he was murdered.

I have listened to it several times, wondering where the Baptist fire and brimstone was. Why was it so boring in comparison to his other speeches and so difficult to follow sometimes.

It took a while for me to realize King was reading it word for word. He had something so important to say, he simply could not risk going off-paper and getting something wrong.

Usually he could get into a cadence that would move the spirit and have listeners embrace every word, shouting out in solidarity.

But in New York that evening, he wanted to make sure he was true to himself and his beliefs.

"I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice," King said.

King had been wrestling with his opposition to the Vietnam War for two years and how his dissent would negatively affect the Civil Rights Movement. President Lyndon B. Johnson, after all, had been in favor of the war while also serving as a powerful defender of integration and desegregation. Going against him would not have good results.

Still, King called for a cease fire, an end to the bombing of both North and South Vietnam, and for the withdrawal of troops. Those were not popular sentiments at that time.

While he wrestled, he said, folks around him in the movement questioned his need to publicly oppose the war.

"At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: 'Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?' 'Why are you joining the voices of dissent?' 'Peace and civil rights don't mix,' they say. 'Aren't you hurting the cause of your people,' they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling."

He could not reconcile fighting against injustice at home while silently condoning the bombing of people abroad. His belief in God's teachings would not allow that, he said, and neither would the Nobel Peace Prize he had received.

"... and I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for 'the brotherhood of man.' This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war."

King was angry, tired and weighed down by a vision and conviction seemingly not many others shared.

After that speech, people basically told King to stick with what he knew: black people. He had no business putting his nose in concerns like Vietnam.

He was called a traitor, a "commie," a disgrace.

Black people were angry as well, saying he was taking attention away from the un-won battles of jobs, poverty and inequality to focus on a war that was halfway around the world.

King's relationship with Johnson never healed and major newspapers said he had seriously messed up and permanently wounded his integrity.

Still, when asked a couple of months later on a TV news program why he had done such a thing, King replied, "I have worked too long now and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I'm going to take a stand against it whether it's in Mississippi or in Vietnam."

That's the King I will be celebrating Monday. That's the King we Christians should be emulating, a man with moral courage that supersedes outward strength.

King believed God was on his side even if his fellow man was not. I'm sure that made that long, hard path to righteousness worth walking.

The question for those of us today is what is it we are willing to sacrifice for God?

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