In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled with what are best understood as existential challenges as he began to move toward an ever-more-profound and radical understanding of what would be required to deal with the nation’s domestic and international problems.
The direction he was exploring, I believe, is far more relevant to the realities we now face than many have realized—or have wanted to realize.
I first met King in 1964 at the Democratic Party’s national convention held that year in Atlantic City—the occasion of an historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the racially segregated and reactionary Mississippi Democratic Party. I was then a very young aide working for Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Sen. Nelson authorized me to help out in any way I could despite President Lyndon Johnson’s effort to clamp down on the fight for representation in the interest of a “dignified” convention that would nominate him in his own right after his rise to the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson didn’t want a bunch of civil rights activists muddying the waters and, not incidentally, causing him problems in the conservative, race-based Democratic South.
After much back and forth, the Johnson administration offered a “compromise” proposal that the old guard be seated (provided they pledged to support him) and that two at-large representatives of the MFDP also be seated.
Any “compromise” that seated the racist delegates was anathema to the MFDP, many of whose representatives had repeatedly risked their lives in the fight for equality. However, King, who desperately needed Johnson’s help in connection with a broad range of evolving national civil rights issues, proposed accepting the “compromise” after presenting a range of arguments for and against it. The performance was “Hegelian” in its complexity, according to one close witness. “So, being a Negro leader, I want you to take this,” King urged, “but if I were a Mississippi Negro, I would vote against it.”
The MFDP delegates were having none of it. During one meeting King was shouted down, and during another the legendary activist Bob Moses reportedly “tore King up,” declaring: “We’re not here to bring politics to our morality, but to bring morality to our politics.”
My own sympathies were with the MFDP and with the position urged by Moses. Indeed, I went to Mississippi following the convention and toured the state with him—a buttoned up young Senate aide trying to understand the depth of MFDP’s commitment and the deeper source of their radical stance and criticism of King. (We were continuously followed by state troopers; I remember vividly how one patrol car would track any vehicle driven by Moses for hours—especially with a white man alongside in the front seat—and then pass us on to another, endlessly.) I also recall sleeping in isolated rural farm houses, many of which had shotguns at the ready by the door.
The 1964 MFDP event underscores some of the complicated and contradictory pressures King was struggling with—and how he was trying to straddle and compromise in ways he felt appropriate given the national role he was playing at this relatively early moment in the 1960s.
It is also well to remember how strong, indeed vicious, were the ongoing attacks King faced not only from the Right, but from the establishment press. King was routinely and intensely interrogated on his numerous appearances on Meet the Press, perhaps the most important national platform in the pre-internet and pre-cable television era. For instance, an interviewer in 1965 interrogated him about an appearance at the Highlander Folk School: “Dr. King, the AP reported the other day that a picture taken of you in 1957 at a Tennessee interracial school is being plastered all over Alabama billboards with the caption ‘Martin Luther King at a Communist training school.’ Will you tell us whether that was a Communist training school and what you were doing there?” Numerous print journalists were equally relentless. Syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, for example, charged that “[Communist] agents are beginning to infiltrate certain sectors of the Negro civil rights movement … The subject of the real head-shaking is the Rev. Martin Luther King … [H]e has accepted and is almost certainly still accepting Communist advice.”
My second encounter with King involved his opposition to the Vietnam War, something he did not express publicly for a substantial period. He began to speak out against some of the most egregious aspects of the war as early as 1965 when, in an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he called for an end to U.S. bombing—and ran into opposition from his primary political base.
Many religious leaders of the more traditional parts of the civil rights movement strongly believed that any challenge to Johnson and the war would burden the movement with far more than it could sustain. King’s own organization, the SCLC, disassociated itself from his position by adopting a resolution carefully confining the organization’s actions to the “question of racial brotherhood.”
It was a Ramparts magazine report in early 1967 with many photos of Vietnamese children who had been the victims of U.S. napalm bombing that pushed King over the edge about the war. “He froze as he looked at the pictures,” his assistant Bernard Lee recalled. “He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military … That’s when the decision was made.”
King’s thunderous challenge to the war and the Johnson administration came in a now-famous Riverside Church speech on April 4, 1967—and the language was no longer “Hegelian.” Indeed the contrast between the King I met in Atlantic City three years before and the King of Riverside Church could not have been starker.
In the Riverside speech, King brought the question of violence by angry black activists into a new and highly controversial focus. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,” King said, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” He continued, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe [people] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression … We in the West must support these revolutions.”
Such words clearly needed to be followed by action—and very shortly after the speech King came to Cambridge, Mass., along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, to help launch an activist effort against the war that I had helped create called “Vietnam Summer.” Then a Fellow of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, I spent a number of hours driving with him to Cambridge, introduced him and Spock at a press conference launching the effort, and then accompanied King, Spock, and a large group of activists as they began a doorbell-ringing campaign to get people involved in anti-war actions that ranged from middle class petition signing to “Hell No We Won’t Go” draft-card burning rallies. The King of 1967 was calm and resolute, a very different man from the careful and cautious King I had met in 1964.
Found in his pocket after the assassination in Memphis was a list of “10 Commandments” he planned to use in a speech to a large anti-war rally in New York on April 27, 1968. Perhaps the most important for our own time: “Thou shalt not believe in a military victory. Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best. Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States. Thou shalt not kill.”
He was assassinated a year to the day after his Riverside Church speech.
Shortly after the launch of Vietnam Summer, at King’s request, I met with him and his assistants Andrew Young and Bernard Lee to sketch out strategies to create new community-wide, democratically owned economic institutions that might also begin to build political power. King’s interest in these strategies was a harbinger of a larger, more complicated direction that was clearly evolving in his own mind.
Here was a man—especially in the last years of his life—who clearly was thinking not simply about new programs and policies, but about what can only be called changing the system. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King said. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
On another occasion, King said, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy and to ask questions about the whole society.” Elsewhere he added, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
What King meant by “democratic socialism” or a something beyond capitalism is clearly ambiguous—and his evolving thoughts on the issue were tragically cut short. Some believe he had in mind something like the Swedish welfare state he found so laudable when he traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. My own sense is that his repeated statements point in the direction of something more profound—a democratic form of system-wide change corresponding to the broad, participatory vision he affirmed, a system beyond both traditional capitalism and traditional socialism that hopefully one day may come into clearer focus and definition.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a great civil rights leader, but to remember him only in this way is to diminish what he was about and what we can learn from him. What stands out—as lessons for our own day and to each of us now—is his growing understanding of the importance of confronting ever-more-fundamental issues, even in the face of challenges from the press, the establishment, and his own religious constituency, to say nothing of those on the Right.
It is well to honor the vision he offered of one day achieving a society beyond racism, but even more important to consider his own struggle and the larger trajectory of thought and action he seemed to be exploring. It is a trajectory that points to a very different role for the U.S. in the world, and one that looks to fundamental, far-reaching systemic change to honor her ideals, no matter how difficult to achieve or how long the task.