It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the assassination, on this day in Memphis, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His life – and his death – have framed much of my own life, as a schoolchild and law student in Chicago, as a law clerk once struck with awe when his widow, Coretta Scott King, walked past, as an attorney representing poor persons charged with federal crimes, and as a professor, first at Martin Luther King Jr. Hall, now very near King’s native Atlanta, and as a scholar of human rights, human security, and the laws of war and peace. King’s influence is evident in my recent borrowing of his “arc of justice” metaphor and in my many posts about him and the movement of which he was a part.
To commemorate this anniversary, I reprint here one such post, published in 2008:
This year questions have come from a different direction. A Democratic presidential candidate has indicated that King was a talker, that it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who delivered civil rights to people of color in the United States. What was said:
Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done. … The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president ….
In view of this claim, it seems appropriate to recall at least some of what Dr. King did — not only through the act of talking, but also through the acts of submitting to arrest, of marching, of putting himself before hostile crowds.
What Dr. King did, after he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (above), was to act upon his understanding that civil rights depended on peace.
What Dr. King did was this: he defied the President to whom, that 1 candidate said, King owed everything. King opposed the Vietnam War, and in so doing, spoke against war itself. The 1st audio-visual item below, a brief video pastiche, demonstrates the nature and scope of his opposition. The 2d audio-visual item below, a longer audio clip of a sermon in which King explained his opposition, found evil in the sending of poor people of all races to kill another nation of poor people:
We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with a 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 school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
Recalling prior encounters with segregationist sheriffs, King continued:
Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, ‘Be non-violent toward Bull Connor’; when I was saying, ‘Be non-violent toward Jim Clark.’ There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward Jim Clark,’ but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.’
What Dr. King did is evident in this timeline:
► March 2, 1965: “King asserted that the war in Vietnam was ‘accomplishing nothing’ and called for a negotiated settlement.”
► March 25, 1967: “King led his first anti-war march in Chicago … and reinforced the connection between war abroad and injustice at home: ‘’The bombs in Vietnam explode at home—they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.'”
► April 4, 1967: In a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” King spoke out against the war in front of “3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City.”
► April 15, 1967: Despite the NAACP’s resistance to his linkage of peace and civil rights, King, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock (with whom Coretta Scott King had been marching for years) and 10,000 others, demonstrated against war in a march, pictured at right, to the United Nations headquarters in New York.
► April 30, 1967: King gave the sermon quoted above at his church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.
► March 31, 1968: In a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King called Vietnam ‘one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.’
Four days later King died, felled by an assassin’s bullet — 4 days, that is, after Johnson announced both that he he would begin to end the war and that he would not seek to remain President after the November election, 4 days after the President had yielded to antiwar entreaties of King and others.
What Dr. King did, through word and deed, was to help force a President to hasten the cause of peace on a troubled planet.
It took a dreamer to get it done.