MLK’s Radical Final Years: Civil Rights Leader Was Isolated After Taking On Capitalism and Vietnam War

Fifty years ago this April, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. Today we look back at the last three years of King’s life, beginning after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite passage of the monumental legislation, King set his eyes on new battles by launching a Poor People’s Campaign and campaigning to stop the Vietnam War. King’s decision to publicly oppose the war isolated him from many of his closest supporters. We feature clips from a new HBO documentary about King’s last years, titled King in the Wilderness, and speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, who wrote the America in the King Years trilogy and is featured in the film, as well as the film’s director Peter Kunhardt and writer Trey Ellis.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival here in Park City, Utah. Fifty years ago this April, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. Today we look back at the last three years of King’s life, beginning after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite passage of the monumental legislation, King set his eyes on new battles by launching a Poor People’s Campaign and campaigning to stop the Vietnam War. King’s decision to publicly oppose the war isolated him from many of his closest supporters.

Well, a new HBO documentary about King’s last years has just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s titled King in the Wilderness. It will air on HBO in April. I had a chance to sit down this week with the film’s director, longtime documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt, as well as two of the film’s executive producers, the writer Trey Ellis and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, who wrote the America in the King Years trilogy. I began by asking Peter Kunhardt about why he named the film King in the Wilderness.

PETER KUNHARDT: We came up with the title of King in the Wilderness late in the editing of the film. And it was based on the fact that we were overcome by the fact that King was struggling in every possible way during those last three years, trying to find his way as he branched away, or in addition to his work on racism, to work on poverty, to work on moving his movement north to the Northern cities and to oppose the war in Vietnam. And as he did this, his support, that he had enjoyed all during the early part of the civil rights movement, vanished. And he was left with no roadmap. He felt his friends abandoned him. And he was alone and struggling and trying to find his way. And we just felt that the title captured that kind of loneliness that he experienced.

AMY GOODMAN: Trey Ellis, you did a lot of the interviews with these legendary figures, the contemporaries of Dr. Martin Luther King. Talk about the people that you spoke to and this particular period in his life. Of course, Dr. King is a legend, an icon, and people can’t imagine that there was this period where he did feel so alone, felt so vilified.

TREY ELLIS: Yeah. I mean, to me, I want to say first, it was such an amazing experience to talk to these people that were all of my parents’ generation and to talk to Xernona Clayton, who opens our film and said Martin died of a broken heart. It’s really heartbreaking. And then, when I talked to Diane Nash, and she said she happened to know my parents from — at Howard University, and I didn’t know that until I interviewed her. So, it really — my journey of interviewing all these legends was really transformative for me. These are all people that I knew just from books.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Diane Nash was.

TREY ELLIS: Right. So, Diane Nash is really one of — I think of her as Wonder Woman a little bit, like the — she’s a legendary civil rights activist, really responsible — Taylor will know more — but for the march to Selma, the voting rights movement in Alabama, the lunch counter movement in Nashville when she was a student at Fisk. But she was also a mother and had to — you know, she had all the problems of being a woman in the movement and being a legend in the movement, where we know who John Lewis is — he’s a congressman and a household name — and Diane Nash should be as famous as him. And hopefully, I think, with — this film might help with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And Diane Nash’s comments about Dr. King and the differences she had with him in those last three years, where she felt the efforts of the civil rights movement should be focused?

TREY ELLIS: Well, she’s still — to this day, she’s still very fiery. And she says this — the idea of the cult of personality, the idea of us, as the people, sort of ceding our sense of agency to one or two leaders, she’s really very much against that. And she speaks pretty eloquently about how we have to find the movement in ourselves, and each of us has to pitch in. And so I think that — and she, being on the ground floor, she knew that there were other people around Dr. King that were also great leaders. And it’s sort of easy for us to sort of outsource our activism to people who are more active than us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Taylor Branch, let’s talk about those last three years, where Dr. King is moving north. And he would say, at that time, he was never so afraid as he was in Chicago. I mean, for all that he faced in the South, Chicago —


AMY GOODMAN: — the Northern United States.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, within a month of Selma, in 1965, he was saying, “We have to go north.” And the staff, including Diane, did not want him to go, did not want to go north. “We still have work to do in the South.” That’s what she said. But King became more determined. He was reluctant in the early years. He was trying to make the movement climb up. He gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Andy Young said, “We wanted to have chicken dinners and congratulate ourselves for 20 years.” He says, “No, we want to go to Selma.” As soon as Selma was done, he says, “We want to go north to show America that the race issue has never — is not, and never has been, purely Southern.” And the staff didn’t want to go.

Then he — all the staff, except for one person, was against his coming out and making the Riverside Church speech against Vietnam. And none of the staff — the film shows how much staff dissension there was on the Poor People’s Campaign, and then on Memphis. So, there was a downward pull of King in the last years, where he felt compelled to make a witness on things that he didn’t have confidence were going to be big breakthrough moments like “I Have a Dream” or the Civil Rights Act of 1965. So, he’s in the wilderness, and he’s lonely, but he is much more of a leader, almost a possessed leader. “We have to do this.” He even made a speech to his staff saying, “We have to finish. There’s a quote in Revelation: ‘We have to finish on our principles, even if we have very little left.'”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us on the trajectory of the Mississippi March — this is after the Selma to Montgomery March, this is James Meredith — and why King decided to join this, through the whole challenge by Stokely Carmichael, who would later become Kwame Ture? Some incredible footage there of them publicly sort of feuding, or it was more a battle of ideas of who should be included in the march. But start with Meredith.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, the Meredith March was a watershed in the public perception of the movement. It was the birth of Black Power. Stokely had just taken over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from John Lewis. Lewis was ousted because he was too much like Martin Luther King, too steadfast in nonviolence. And when Meredith got shot, Dr. King and Stokely were thrown together in continuing his march through Mississippi.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened to James Meredith.

TAYLOR BRANCH: James Meredith was — had his own solo March Against Fear to try to inspire black Mississippians, who were afraid to go to the courthouse to register to vote after the Voting Rights Act. And he said, “If I can march through Mississippi by myself, then you shouldn’t be afraid to register.” But on the third day out, he was shot by white people who were angry that he was trying to rally black people to vote.

And civil rights leaders, many of whom weren’t — they weren’t consulted about this march, but they felt they had to continue it, because it was so public. And it threw Dr. King together with the new SNCC leader, Stokely. And Stokely said, openly, that he used the fact that all the press came with Dr. King to announce this new doctrine to make the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee not be so much second fiddle. They had always felt Dr. King got all the publicity, and they were spending more time in jail.

And he pronounced this new doctrine: “We want Black Power!” And it mesmerized the media. To this day, I mean, it’s more popular. There are a lot of nonviolent movement veterans who are embarrassed that they were nonviolent, because Black Power became so popular. And Dr. King would argue with Stokely, marching down the road, and there are scenes of that. But then, at night, they would argue.

AMY GOODMAN: With a reporter between them —

TAYLOR BRANCH: With a reporter between them.

AMY GOODMAN: — holding a mic, going back and forth.


AMY GOODMAN: And also the inclusion of non-black activists in the movement.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes, but — well, yes, they wanted — the march was very integrated, the March Against Fear. Remember, it’s 220-something miles. It went on for almost a month. It’s bigger than the Selma March.

But its significance is that it marks this big transformation between violence and nonviolence, or the opening of a debate. And Stokely would say, “How come we have to be nonviolent? How come America admires nonviolence only in black people, but otherwise they admire John Wayne, you know? And why do we have to do that?” And Dr. King would say, “We don’t. I’m not telling you you have to do it. What I’m telling you is that nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. It’s ahead of America. If we become violent, it’s not that we’re stepping up to be like John Wayne. It’s that we’re stepping back from nonviolence to try to move the country toward reconciliation, toward votes, nonviolence, toward spirituality.”

So they had this big argument about whether the civil rights movement needed to be nonviolent, whether it was — whether it was effective, whether it was principled, and what kind of leadership strategy it was. And that debate dominated the last couple years of Dr. King’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Taylor Branch, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, part of his remarkable trilogy, talking about the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness, which is directed by Peter Kunhardt. We’ll be back with them and the film’s executive producer, Trey Ellis, in a minute, as they talk about King moving to Chicago in 1966 and much more.


AMY GOODMAN: “Programmed to Perceive,” Talia Keys, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We’re broadcasting from Park City TV.

We return now to our coverage of the documentary King in the Wilderness, that just premiered here at Sundance. It’s about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last three years. I spoke this week with filmmaker Peter Kunhardt, as well as two of the film’s executive producers, the writer Trey Ellis, who did many of the interviews, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, who wrote the America in the King Years trilogy. We return to our conversation in a moment, but first an excerpt from the documentary, which is playing right here at Sundance and debuts on HBO in April. This is Harry Belafonte speaking, a dear friend and close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I do not know that everything that Martin said or did, he was quite prepared for. He had felt that, in many ways, dealing with the South was a more predictable outcome, because in the North the racial hypocrisy was very subverted. It gave the appearance of being not like the South: The South was the center of all evil, and the North was a place of a higher experience. And Dr. King said, no, that’s not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Harry Belafonte, one of the closest confidants of Dr. Martin Luther in the last 10 years of Dr. King’s life, talking about Dr. King moving North. He didn’t just march in Chicago. He moved his family to Chicago, as he particularly took on the issue of housing. Taylor Branch, you’re a veteran civil rights historian. You won the Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters. But you, too, were surprised by some of the footage that you saw in — for King in the Wilderness.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes, I was surprised by — I wrote, but I didn’t feel as — I wrote in my book that these thousands of white people would come out and throw bricks. And it was women with pocketbooks, and they’d hit people with pocketbooks, and they’d yell and scream. But to write it is different, based on source material, than to see Nazi signs and people yelling and screaming in Chicago. It was a very rough place.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the swastikas, the presence of these swastikas.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. There were lots of swastikas and lots of young people involved. Now, on the other side, Dr. King was trying to experiment with nonviolence in the North, and, in many respects, it was safe. There are no stories, as there were in Memphis, of nonviolence breaking down on the movement side in Chicago. In fact, a number of gang leaders would come up to Dr. King’s apartment and argue with him all night, and a number of gang leaders were in those marches. So, he had the Blackstone Rangers and a number of them in these marches. In some respects, it was the far reaches of the laboratory of who could be nonviolent and whether or not it could work.

But what you get out of the film is you see the other side of it. Dr. King said, “We have to show America that there’s a race problem in the North, because you’d be surprised how many millions of people think that there is no more race problem since we passed the civil rights bill.” And in that one little task, they succeeded admirably. Nobody really argued that there was no racism in the North, after Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t he hit by a brick in Chicago?

TAYLOR BRANCH: He was hit by a brick on that same march, and once or twice by a rock. Of course, he was struck many times, stabbed. You know, violence had always been close to him his whole life, before Memphis. That wasn’t new. But I think, in Chicago, even what Andy said — down in the South, you would have a couple hundred Klansmen, you’d be scared. But in Chicago, there were thousands of people, and they were enraged, and you could hear them. It was an angry crowd.

AMY GOODMAN: Trey Ellis, let’s talk more about the riots in Chicago, the white Nazi swastika-holding protesters who were going after King. Your interviews done as President Trump took office, and we see Charlottesville this summer, with self-proclaimed Nazis and fascists marching in Virginia. Your thoughts, connecting these two, 50 years apart?

TREY ELLIS: Yeah, it was quite moving and, in some ways, depressing to see how things — how little movement had been — how segregated still much of the country is, and to hear Diane Nash and the other Chicago people talk about the issues of Chicago and the — I mean, I remember, as a kid, talking about, you know, the Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois, as well. This kind of Northern — that Northern racism really, while I was interviewing these subjects, was really, on the eve of the Trump — you know, Trump had just been inaugurated when I started these interviews — was certainly reverberating in my head in ways that were — that was troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: The inclusion of women, who you don’t often see, in this documentary, when talking about the civil rights movement, can you talk about some of the figures?

TAYLOR BRANCH: It wasn’t “We need to include some women.” It’s “Who are the most important people alive, at various stages,” and they were women. I mean, Dorothy Cotton trained the young black children who did the children’s marches in Birmingham. That was her job. She was a singer. And that was one of the great, watershed moments in the civil rights era, when the dogs and the fire hoses came out. She did that. And Diane Nash, who helped her, then took that reaction and said, “We have to do something to answer these kids that got bombed.” And she designed — and there’s a document — what became the blueprint for the Selma — for the Selma voting rights.

So, these are not just women thrown in there. These are women who were central, but they have been not recognized in their true proportions. Joan Baez, very, very significant in the huge arguments within the movement about whether Vietnam or poverty. Marian Edelman, it was her idea, you know, mediating between Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, to move into the Poor People’s Campaign. So, these are highly significant women, that I think get their due in this film, and you can feel their significance in the interviews.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the relationship between LBJ and Dr. King — really significant — and especially LBJ’s alarm, President Johnson’s alarm, as riots are breaking out, uprising, rebellions. Who does he call? He calls Dr. King. And so interesting that you have the audio recordings. What — did you get them from FBI surveillance tapes?

TAYLOR BRANCH: No, those are presidential recordings. So, you have LBJ talking to J. Edgar Hoover, who tells him he’s a faker, Dr. King is a faker, “He’s not for you, he’s against you on Vietnam,” trying to undercut him. You know, just blanket hostility, and you can hear it. But also LBJ talking to Martin Luther King, you know, saying, “This is terrible. What can we do?”

And it was really sad, because in one of the conversations — it was too long to fit in the film — LBJ said, “What we did in Selma, with you mobilizing the public and me being able to give that speech, that’s the way democracy is supposed to work. You know, energized citizen and responsive government, that’s about the best thing that ever happened.” And in that same conversation, they’re talking about Vietnam. And we have that in the film, where you can feel Vietnam pulling them apart and Johnson just being — he said, “My legacy is civil rights, but that’s being threatened by these riots. And I’ve got this war, and my ally, Dr. King, is turning against me on the war.” So, there’s a lot — a lot of passion in those conversations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about Vietnam and how King ended up making this Riverside address, speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” I wanted to turn to a clip of Vince Harding, before he died. We had a long conversation with him about the speech and his conversations with Dr. King. The man, Vince Harding, who helped to craft that speech, this is what he had to say.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Martin was, towards the end of his life, you may remember, by the last years of his life, he was saying that America had to deal with three — what he called triple evils: the evil of racism, the evil of materialism and the evils of militarism. And he saw those three very much connected to each other. …

In a way, Amy, as long as Martin and I knew each other, we were talking about the kinds of things that were involved in that speech. We were talking about the tremendous damage that war does to those who participate in it, to those who are the victims of it, to those who lose tremendous possibilities in their own lives because of it. And we were always talking about what it might mean to try to find creative, nonviolent alternatives to the terrible old-fashionedness of war as a way of solving problems.

And then, when Vietnam began to develop on all of our screens in the 1960s, we talked a great deal about our country’s role and a great deal about the role of those of us who were believers in the way of nonviolent struggle for change and what our responsibility was both as nonviolent believers and as followers of the teachings and the ways of Jesus the Christ. So when Martin was clear with himself that he had to make a major public address on this subject, as fully as he could possibly do it, he was looking for a setting in which that could be done on the grounds of his religious stance particularly. And when clergy and laity against the war in Vietnam invited him to do that at Riverside for the occasion of their gathering in April 1967, it was clear to him that that was the place that he really ought to make the speech or to take the stand in the most public way possible.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vince Harding, a close ally of Dr. King, who helped to craft that “Beyond Vietnam” speech, or “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” the speech that Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Talk about Vince Harding’s role in that speech, Taylor Branch.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, Vince Harding was a Mennonite student of nonviolence his whole life, who lived in Atlanta, not far from Dr. King. And when the speech was — when he undertook the speech, for reasons that Trey can explain, it was one of the few that he actually wrote out. He had to have it — a condition of doing this was that they wanted to publicize it and get his views out. They wanted a written version of the speech. Normally —

AMY GOODMAN: That Dr. King wrote out.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yeah. And normally, Dr. King kind of improvised and winged things. He was like a jazz — but he had to have a formal speech. And he called in a number of people, but, principally, Vince Harding did the first draft of the speech to try to get it right, one moment to speak. And the idea was — the staff didn’t want him to give the speech, but they said, “If you’re going to do it, do it in a way that at least you don’t have — the press will pay attention to it. Don’t do it with a lot of ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids,’ you know, placards in the background. Don’t do it” —

AMY GOODMAN: “How many kids did you kill today?”

TAYLOR BRANCH: “‘How many kids did you kill?’ Don’t — with anything provocative. Do it in a nice setting,” turning to Clergy and Laity Concerned and Dick Fernandez. And Trey interviewed Dick Fernandez about how they went in there. But they were trying to make it as palatable as possible and get the world one chance to listen to his comprehensive argument about the history of Vietnam, about the Vietnamese people, about how they viewed our claims that we were fostering this out of concern for their democratic future. And he crafted this comprehensive speech, and nobody listened to it anyway. They said, “You’re a traitor. You shouldn’t” — it was one of the big disappointments in his life. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And what did King and Vince Harding say?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Next time he saw him — Vince told me that the next time Dr. King saw him in Atlanta, he said, “Vince, you got me really in a lot of trouble, and I’m going to blame you and stuff.” But they survived on gallows humor. And Dr. King was a champion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Trey, talk more about the significance of this speech. I want to play another clip, this one of Dr. King himself. So many of the phrases he used became so important later.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home. And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dr. King saying that his country, the United States, was the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth. The corporate media, the mainstream media, went after him, from the Times to Time magazine to Life magazine. I have the Life magazine copy still. And they talked about the fact — they said that his speech sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi. They said he had done a disservice to his cause, his country and his people. So, for those young people today who say, “It was easy for King, because everything he did, everyone idolized,” he was slammed.

TREY ELLIS: Yeah, it was fascinating for me. We begin, in the documentary, talking about when he sort of nudged into the idea of global politics, talking to Ambassador Goldberg with Andrew Young. And anytime he would try to say anything except for white Southerners shouldn’t segregate, he was pilloried. So they really tried their best, as Taylor said, to say, “How can we make this strong statement as innocuous, as palatable as possible?”

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens after, a year to the day before he’s assassinated, that speech, is what King says.

TREY ELLIS: Yeah, it’s just amazing, the coincidence that a year to the day after that speech he’s gunned down in Memphis. But the backlash against the speech wasn’t only the media or the white community. It was also Roy Wilkins and the NAACP. All the black clergymen were very concerned. And even inside the SCLC, they were very concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

TREY ELLIS: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led, they were concerned. Their money dried up. He had no friends. And that’s when Xernona says — Xernona Clayton, his great adviser, who begins our film, says he died of a broken heart. That’s really one of those great reasons, that everybody seemed to have turned against him, with his turn against the war.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s writer Trey Ellis, executive producer of the new documentary King in the Wilderness. We’ll be back with him, with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch and the film’s director, Peter Kunhardt, in a minute, talking about King’s last year alive.