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Tavis Smiley tackles Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-Vietnam War speech

AP photo

AP photo

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

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16 comments Add your comment

white poster

March 30th, 2010
2:27 pm

must be a slow news day. couldn’t you have wrote a story on that fat pig kim zolciak and her new lesbo lover or something?

Margy Dowzer

March 30th, 2010
3:16 pm

I’m really looking forward to this program. We have such sanitized and truncated views of the people and movements that shape history. We need a much more thoughtful exploration of King’s legacy, and I’m happy this will air nation-wide.


March 30th, 2010
3:20 pm

I have a dream…that one day…there will be a half-black president…and that president will be elected by the whites, who have made to feel guilty about the mistreatment of black people over the years…I have a dream…that this president will enslave the productive working class of this country… tax them to high heaven…and give gov. programs to the moochers so he will be made to look like their savior…I have a dream


March 30th, 2010
3:49 pm

Hey Jim,

Check the facts….stop getting your talking points from your Fat Pappy Rush and Ignorant Sarah Palin. Maybe you could use a tudor to help you understand the facts, boy!!


March 30th, 2010
3:53 pm


I’m sure you have nothing to worry about… will never make $250K in your lifetime…so why worry about high taxes? When are you teabaggers going to stop fighting for millionaires like Hannity, Neal and Rush? I bet your parents are on medicare….idiot!! 60& of the teabaggers are on medicare…how dumb is that??? LMAO

Mark Dillon

March 30th, 2010
4:37 pm

What facts did Jim get wrong? If you think only people who make over $250k a year pay the high taxes, you must be drinking the cool-aid. Are you also saying that even though you are entitled to receive money but aren’t 100% for the program you should turn down the money. Especially when my share might go to you Amy Is that what you call fair? HAS THERE EVER BEEN A GOVERNMENT PROGRAM THAT COST LESS THAN WHAT THEY TOLD US IT WOULD COST be it democrat or republican? – Also, how is it funny Amy that Jim’s parents maybe on Medicare?


March 30th, 2010
11:39 pm

Jim that was brilliant. Brain dead moochers like Brent & Amy are too busy envying the productive class to locate any original thoughts on just how our country became so economically successful in the first place. I can hear their responses now: “people got rich on the backs of the poor” or because they “hit lifes lottery”. Puhleaze. Get a grip and a life..


March 31st, 2010
8:09 am

Brent & Amy, looks like you are the only folks on here with an IQ above 20. Folks like Craig, Jim and Mark are teabaggers who are using the healthcare bill as an excuse to hate our President. These hate mongers haven’t read 2 pages of the healthcare bill…they get their talking points from Fox news.

Rodney Ho Moe

March 31st, 2010
8:18 am

Jim just hit the nail on the head. Amen brother.


March 31st, 2010
10:03 am

The GOP’s obsession with seeing the President fail and their refusal to work with the Democrats to better the lives of the American people will come back to haunt them.


March 31st, 2010
11:03 am

Brent and Amy,

Ugghhhh, well, you lost me at “Jim”…don’t like Palin, don’t listen to Rush, and have never been to a TEA party (been to many BEER parties though). When surfing the AJC, I just know how excited some (certain) individuals will get when they see the picture of the civil rights march (above) and the MLK headline…then, inspired, they decide to click on the story, scroll down to the blog, only to find me, Jim, waiting for you to read my opinionated (some may call it factual) post. I know that these (certain) individuals are most likely the same individuals who worship King Obama for all of the wrong reasons. I know that these (certain) individuals are the individuals who I will most likely strike a nerve with because they are so not used to hearing another perspective (mine). I know that these individuals are the same ones that believe everything they hear on MSNBC, CNN, ABC or read on the AJC…especially Cynthia Tuckers column. So I decide to give you something you need…an eye-opening post


March 31st, 2010
1:08 pm

Brent, Maybe you should use a tutor to help you spell boy.


March 31st, 2010
3:25 pm

Great article Rodney.

Dennis Myers

April 1st, 2010
12:38 am

I just watched the Smiley program.. It portrays the Riverside Church speech as the launch of Martin King’s dissent from the Vietnam policy and the occasion of his break with Lyndon Johnson. It was not. That had happened with his FIRST speech on the war at the Nation Institute in Los Angeles five weeks earlier. The Riverside speech was partly an answer to the criticism he received for the Nation speech, and the Smiley program misrepresents the sequence and the history. It’s good that Dr. King did not fall silent after criticism of the Nation speech, but the first speech was the benchmark, the one that took the greatest courage. It was easily the more important of the two. And it meant so much to us at the time.

The Nation speech can be read at


April 1st, 2010
2:50 pm

While I have HUGE admiration for what Dr. King (and other civil rights leaders) did to advance racial equality in our country, and thus consider him one of the most important figures in 20th century America, I have grown tired of people preparing him for sainthood. He definitely had his flaws. And deciding to become a foreign affairs expert and rail against the Vietnam War was one of his biggest mistakes. Because it diluted the effectiveness of his messsages on racial equality, and turned public opinion against him. I can certainly see where a man of God would feel compelled to speak out against racial injustice as he did. But I feel he was way out of his league speaking about the war. The damage it did to his image (along w/ rumors of marital infidelity) I believe watered down his message, hurt the civil rights movement, and ultimately delayed many of the racial changes he was fighting for.


April 1st, 2010
3:56 pm

Tavis — As usual — an incredibly insightful program that really explored personal, intimate and academic perspectives on Dr. King. I found it to be incredibly emotional experience and brought home the memories once again of his death, and just how much of the country was pitted against him and his calls for justice, and international justice. As with all great people in the history of the world, they all have great personal flaws, internal conflicts and often overstretch, but this should not distract us from both the importance and the quality of his message. Especially now, when the children of that time are struggling with our vision of who we are as a country and where we will now take our country and how we will play our role in the world.

This speech is not some ghostly past, but is more of a vision and now more than ever can serve to guide us, in both our moral search for justice and liberty, and our constitutional, national search for the rights of all human kind.

Thank you for reminding us ….