(First published in January 2020; re-posted 1/15/2021)
Marking the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, many people will read or hear his most famous speech, the “I have a dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.
Nearly five years after the celebrated 1963 rally, and just days before his death, Dr. King delivered his final Sunday sermon at National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. King’s words that day may not have the familiar ring of “I have a dream.”
Preparing to lead the “Poor People’s Campaign” into Washington later that spring, he addressed three central issues.
He spoke first about racial equality, the glimmers of progress that had been made in five years, and the promises still to be kept. Then he turned to poverty, hunger and inadequate housing in what he called “the richest nation in the world.” This was, after all, going to be the “Poor People’s Campaign.” King knew that economic injustice could be colorblind.
But there was a third piece of Dr. King’s vision. On that day in 1968, as the war in Vietnam raged and American opposition to that war mounted, Dr. King said,
“Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.”
Guided by Thoreau, Gandhi and his own Christianity, King’s belief in nonviolence and the use of civil disobedience were central to his movement’s push for racial justice. But his unflinching opposition to the war in Vietnam tends to be shunted to the sidelines when discussing King’s legacy. Certainly when he first voiced his opposition to the war, his was not a popular stance. Accused of taking the “Commie” line, Dr. King acknowledged that his antiwar views were hurting the movement and his organization.
“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular,” he told the thousands who packed the Cathedral. “… I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’”
Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Retrieved September 2, 2013)
Ironically, King’s “other speech” was overshadowed. Later that evening, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a national television audience that he was withdrawing from the presidential race. The weight of the war and the growing opposition to it had combined to force Johnson from his quest for another term. And a few days later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Those who wish to remember Dr. King’s impact and ideas must recall more than a gauzy, feel-good rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” It is mere lip service to trumpet King’s “Dream” without acknowledging the other piece of his call to conscience:
“Simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.”
(Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Retrieved September 2, 2013)