Martin Luther King Jr.’s life has taken on a hagiographic glow more than 40 years after his assassination in 1968. He not only has a national holiday named after him, but his name is attached to schools and streets nationwide.
From that perspective, it’s hard to imagine how unpopular he was the year he died. Part of the reason: his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which the civil rights leader railed against the United States for the war in Vietnam.
Newspaper editorial writers who supported him pilloried the speech, saying he was unqualified to discuss foreign policy. Black supporters, even within his own ranks, abandoned him. Pastors wouldn’t allow him to speak at their churches. Money to his organization dried up. His Harris Poll numbers dropped markedly. In 1968, three quarters of Americans and a whopping 55 percent of black Americans had a negative image of MLK.
Talk-show host Tavis Smiley, who has started doing quarterly hour-long specials for PBS this year, interviews several of King experts and close friends to probe the speech’s impact for Wednesday night’s hour-long special, airing on GPB, called “MLK: A Call to Conscience.”
This speech “led to the demonization of King,” Smiley said. “The speech caused black leaders to turn against him. It got him disinvited by LBJ to the White House. He couldn’t get a book deal. It’s fascinating given the adulation and adoration we have for MLK today.”
The special shows the complexities within King. “He wasn’t just this dreamer. He was far more than that,” Smiley said. “This was never about popularity. He had to tell the truth no matter the consequences.”
The speech addressed escalating militarization and the diversion of money from the war on poverty, “things that are relevant today,” Smiley said. “If you replace ‘Vietnam’ with ‘Afghanistan and Iraq,’ the speech would still be germane.”
And if King were still alive today, Smiley thinks he’d have issues with Pres. Obama’s troop mobilization in Afghanistan and the continued war in Iraq. “For all the King rhetoric from Obama, I’m sure there’d be tension on this issue,” he said.
You can read the entire speech here. Part of the audio from the speech is included. (Apparently, only a small portion of video remains from that day.)
Smiley spoke to a host of experts, including Prof. Cornel West, entertainers Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett, speech co-writer Vincent Harding and King legal advisor Clarence Jones. He did most of the interviews inside the Riverside Church, where King spoke April 4, 1967, one year before his death.
“This is public television at its best,” Smiley said. “Challenging people’s assumptions and expand people’s inventory of ideas.”
“MLK: A Call to Conscience” GPB, 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 31