Friday, March 21, 2008


In a well-intentioned article titled "Another Angry Black Preacher," E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post wonders what the reaction would have been in a YouTube age to the denunciation of the Vietnam War by Dr. Martin Luther King:

Listen to what King said about the Vietnam War at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968: "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war.... And we are criminals in that war. We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place." King then predicted this response from the Almighty: "And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power."

If today's technology had existed then, I would imagine the media playing quotations of that sort over and over. Right-wing commentators would use the material to argue that King was anti-American....

I would ... ask my conservative friends who praise King so lavishly to search their consciences and wonder if they would have stood up for him in 1968.

Actually, King was widely castigated when he expressed opposition to the war in 1967 -- particularly by those in the center:

...national media heard [King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech] loud and clear back in 1967 -- and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post patronized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

In fact, it was Time's sister magazine Life that used the "Radio Hanoi" line, adding:

... he goes beyond his personal right to dissent when he connects progress in civil rights here with a proposal that amounts to abject surrender in Vietnam....

Taylor Branch reminds us that the Johnson White House pressed blacks to criticize King:

White House aide Clifford Alexander ... and others mobilized civil rights leaders to isolate King's threat to their White House alliance. Former ambassador Carl Rowan angrily told King that millions of their fellow black people would suffer for his insults against the greatest civil rights President in American history. He ascribed sinister motives to King in a syndicated column later expanded for Reader's Digest, and King's folly became a front-page theme within a week.... "N.A.A.C.P. Decries Stand of Dr. King on Vietnam / Calls It a 'Serious Tactical Mistake' to Merge Rights and Peace Drives," announced the April 11 New York Times, which followed two days later with a headline about United Nations undersecretary Ralph Bunche, the only other black American Nobel Peace laureate: "Bunche Disputes Dr. King on Peace."

Michael Friedland adds:

Many were particularly incensed at the comparisons King had made between the military tactics used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Nazis. Malcolm Tarlov of the Jewish War Veterans said it was "utterly incredible that Dr. King's denunciation of our Government should manifest itself in such an ugly parallel," and said his organization considered King's "extremist tirade to reveal an ignorance of the facts, pandering to Ho Chi Minh, and an insult to the intelligence of all Americans.... His speech could have been written in North Vietnam."

Dionne implies that a lack of YouTube prevented King from facing the degree of critixcism Wright and Obama are experiencing today. But King did face that degree of criticism. We just don't remember it now.

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