The Guardian: “Christian democracy, a political ideology embodied by figures like Germany’s Angela Merkel, contributed to establishing stable democracies in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. The US was often deeply supportive of this process, yet never cultivated an analogous political movement at home. Now that it is facing a serious institutional threat of its own, it can perhaps learn from what it has long preached abroad.
The role of Christian democratic parties and agents in the creation of the United Nations, the European Union and the international human rights regime was decisive.
Well, maybe. But finding “a better alternative” won’t be easy.
Still, there’s plenty of wisdom here. American evangelical Christianity COULD in theory move way from the current regime, which mocks almost every aspect of its core.
But I see four BIG hazards that will need to be overcome on the way to becoming a better option:
When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.
Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.
One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color.
That second march, by the way, is still going on.
I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.
But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.
Let me explain.
In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.
And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.
“Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”
Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned.
“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”
His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”
“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.
I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.
Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops.
The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.
That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.
Several years later, while doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis.
All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.
This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.
But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.
I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.
On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?
Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.
When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:
On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.
At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.
Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.
One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.
There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)
Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective. Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.
The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.
The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.
But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.
It is carefully reported, and digs deep. It takes a broad view, but focuses on a huge megachurch, “Gateway,” in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
The Gateway congregations are “integrated”; people of color have been worshiping there for years; pastors at two of its “campuses” are black. As Charmaine Pruitt, one longtime attender, told the Times:
“This is what I need right now,” thought Ms. Pruitt, moved to tears when she first went to orientation programs at the church. Members who happened to sit near her at worship came to ask about her when she missed a service, and some came to her grandmother’s wake. One couple began to refer to her as a daughter.
The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color.
But recently, some there, and in similar churches, have become increasingly uncomfortable.
Two events seem to have marked this discomfort: first was the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, followed by growing anger and protest of the killings of many more black people (mostly young males). These killings were traumatic to many; but the disturbing aspect to some Gateway attenders was the silence about them in the church.
The second landmark was the 2016 election. As the campaign proceeded, there was anything but silence from the Gateway pulpit.
The church’s founder and “Senior Pastor,” Robert Morris, preached about the election in August 2016. As the Times quoted him:
“We (in America) are going the wrong way,” he concluded. “We need to get involved, we need to pray and we need to vote.”
[Morris] never said to vote for Mr. Trump. But the implication in the sermon, and in the leaflets that [were] handed out at church, was lost on no one: that one must vote to uphold Christian values and that the Republican Party platform reflected those values. And Mr. Trump was the Republican candidate.
This sermon, and the previous silence, left Charmaine Pruitt, who had attended Gateway for some years, more & more uneasy:
Pruitt sent messages to several white couples she had befriended at the church, telling them she was going to take some time off. She had become uneasy at a church, she told them, that speaks of overcoming racism on one Sunday “and then turns around later and asks me to support” Trump, who she believed was “a racist candidate.”
One of the couples invited her to come to their house. Sitting in the living room over a plate of brownies, Ms. Pruitt explained to the wife how disturbed she had been by the clear inference from the pulpit that she should support a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric were so offensive that she could not bring herself even to say his name. The woman explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied and handed Ms. Pruitt a two-page printout, which began: “The Spirit of God says, ‘I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.’”
[NOTE: the full text of this “prophecy,” issued in 2011, is here, with “updates.” Here is an excerpt:
The Spirit of God says, I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America! For I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America. America will be respected once again as the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth, (other than Israel). The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States, and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged.
The Spirit of God says, the enemy will quake and shake and fear this man I have anointed. They will even quake and shake when he announces he is running for president, it will be like the shot heard across the world. The enemy will say what shall we do now? This man knows all our tricks and schemes. We have been robbing America for decades, what shall we do to stop this? The Spirit says HA! No one shall stop this that l have started! For the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now! For I will use this man to reap the harvest that the United States has sown for and plunder from the enemy what he has stolen and return it seven-fold back to the United States. The enemy will say Israel, Israel, what about Israel? For Israel will be protected by America once again. The spirit says yes! America will once again stand hand and hand with Israel, and the two shall be as one. For the ties between Israel and America will be stronger than ever, and Israel will flourish like never before.
The Spirit of God says, I will protect America and Israel, for this next president will be a man of his word, when he speaks the world will listen and know that there is something greater in him than all the others before him. This man’s word is his bond and the world and America will know this and the enemy will fear this, for this man will be fearless. The Spirit says, when the financial harvest begins so shall it parallel in the spiritual for America.
The Spirit of God says, in this next election they will spend billions to keep this president in; it will be like flushing their money down the toilet. Let them waste their money, for it comes from and it is being used by evil forces at work, but they will not succeed, for this next election will be a clean sweep for the man I have chosen. They [the enemy] will say things about this man, but it will not affect him, and they shall say it rolls off of him like the duck, for as the feathers of a duck protect it, so shall My feathers protect this next president. Even mainstream news media will be captivated by this man and the abilities that I have gifted him with, and they will even begin to agree with him says the Spirit of God.
[NOTE: the “next election” following this “prophecy” was that of 2012, which we will recall was won handily by Barack Obama. However, the premature chronology did not trouble the woman who gave it to Pruitt. As the Times reported]:
Barack Obama, the woman continued, should never have been president, since he was not born a United State citizen. The visit ended with the woman suggesting that Ms. Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on.
Ms. Pruitt never went back.
. . . Mr. Trump’s win, which one elder at Gateway described as a “supernatural answer to prayer,” generated a frisson of excitement at the church. Pastor Morris told the congregation that he was one of Mr. Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017. . . .
Pastor Morris has since preached about race, However, his feelings about the current administration have not changed:
“We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”
There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.
“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”
There is now a team at the church focused exclusively on making the church more diverse. On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a 49-second video of excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was played at worship services — “a monumental moment in Gateway church history,” one pastor said, the first time that the day had been acknowledged. . . .
For Charmaine Pruitt, this was too little, too late:
[Ms. Pruitt] had kept giving tithe money to Gateway for some months after she stopped going, but after learning about the inaugural ball, started donating to another church. On most Sundays she had stayed at home, watching services online.
At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.
I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.
And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.
But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.
The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)
Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.
Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.
He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.
Still’s book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:
Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.
So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.
The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.
It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina — as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted. Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.
For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.
This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.
In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?
Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.
So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.
Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence. Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.
In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation.
Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:
For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349
PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.
I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.
Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”
To respond to the State of the Union address, we’ve invited two special Friendly commentators, who are joining us via our new astral projection uplink.
First up is our old buddy, Walter Whitman, late of Camden, New Jersey, where he settled once they named a big bridge there after him. Whitman is known as the author of the best-selling pro-marijuana polemic of all time, Leaves of Grass.
No, really: Just today I found an unimpeachable source, shown below. I saw the outline of the plan sitting there, exposed & unguarded — and, once an investigative reporter, always an investigative reporter — scooped it up.
When I wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King’s office in the late fall of 1964, seeking a job in the civil rights movement, I claimed to be a writer, and that’s what they hired me to do.
It turned out my claim was mostly about the future: I was working toward becoming a writer. But once on the staff, when confronted by my green rookie whiteness (yes: green whiteness was a thing; maybe still is), I was essentially struck dumb as a writer. I was overwhelmed by the weight of my utter ignorance about the South, the movement, about black and white — about myself.
(I am everlastingly grateful to Dr. King’s office manager, the late Randolph Blackwell, for indulging my failure, and not firing me; I think he could see I needed what Quakers call “seasoning” — a lot of it. And besides, I was only drawing $25 per week from the payroll, which was not much even then.)
For nearly a year, I was able to write only a few poems. (This period of internally-enforced silence is detailed in my memoir of that time –written 30-plus years later– Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.)
But then, late in 1965, after being part of the Selma voting rights campaign and its aftermath — after, as my veteran mentors in the movement explained, “paying my dues,” I finally began to recover a prose voice.
And by then, the seemingly sunny prospects for major progress toward racial justice were being increasingly clouded over by an external threat: the rapidly-escalating U. S. war in Vietnam.
And that’s what I was moved to write the first post-silence piece about: the problems posed by the war, not only to the country or the movement, but in particular to its putative leader, Dr. King. I finished the piece pretty quickly, then feeling bold, sent it off to a magazine — a real magazine, one I had reason to believe Dr. King read.
And they accepted it! The piece was published fifty-one years ago today: March 16, 1966.
It was a first for me in two important respects: my first article published in a “real” national magazine. And it was the first article I was ever paid for: the grand sum of $35. (In a box somewhere in the house, or the storage shed out back, I still have the stub of that check, in a frame; at least I hope I still have it.)
Because it was the first, I have often thought of that piece in March, as this date rolls past. And from time to time, I have searched it out and looked it over.
And it’s not so bad, for a debut article. Sure I was young and callow, and it shows. But maybe the piece was useful then. And maybe it’s worth looking at here. Much has changed since 1966. But much also seems to still be stuck, or even worse. Issues of progress toward racial justice are certainly still salient, and the draining of resources away from closing these gaps on behalf of an ever-greedy war machine are as timely as this morning’s headlines.
So as both a personal exercise, and a public offering, I have copied the full text here, interleaved with some current reflections.
The Christian Century – MARCH 16, 1966, pp 331-332
Dilemma for Dr. King
The Vietnam war is perhaps the greatest challenge of this Negro leader’s career and conceivably its culmination.
Charles E. Fager
(Mr. Fager, formerly on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is now on the faculty of Friends World Institute in East Norwich, New York.)
AS THE LEADER of the Negro struggle for equality, Martin Luther King is faced with the perils of success. His movement, it is now clear, is going to bring America’s Negroes into the mainstream of national life. The job will not be done “NOW!” or even within a generation, but the forces set in motion by five years of mass nonviolent effort are too far-reaching to be reversed. The nation’s “white power structure” has come to realize not only that integration can be accomplished without major upheavals in the present American socioeconomic system but also that it will in the long run serve to enrich that system.
Reflections: How language has changed! The universal “he” leaps accusingly out at me; that was still standard discourse then. Also “Negro”: yet it was a respectful term at the time. Dr. King used it all his life. But what is almost embarrassing is the presumptive tone of optimism: “we” (the movement) had won; all over but the shouting.
I wish. But this was not merely my personal conceit. The 1960s civil rights movement had just reached its high-water mark in Selma: the new Voting Rights Act was registering black voters by the tens of thousands across the South; both President Lyndon Johnson and a progressive Congress seemed on board.
Sure it would take time to mop up the remaining pockets of resistance. But that year the movement had hit what looked like a home run, rounded third, and was striding confidently toward home plate. And Dr. King, who came to Selma with a Nobel Peace Prize fresh in his pocket, appeared to be at the apex of his prestige and influence. Those were the days! And how soon they passed . . . .
With victory on the horizon, the Negro leadership with Dr. King as its symbol seems uncertain about what to do next. There is a strong temptation to dig in, to consolidate and expand the gains already made; in short, to begin playing the political game for an ever larger piece of the nation- al pie, as did the labor movement at the end of its rise. Such a feeling is natural. “Freedom Now!” translated into more specific terms means for most Negroes simply: “We want in!” Into the economy, into the political circuses, into all the currents and eddies of the American mainstream. This is why the Muslims and Black Nationalists failed to catch on with the Negro masses: they preached revolution and prepared for an Armageddon which would destroy the white world. But the average Negro doesn’t want to destroy anything; he wants to spread it around. He isn’t basically opposed to “the system”; he just doesn’t like being at its bottom.
Of course, Muslims and black nationalism, beginning with the cry of “Black Power,” were hardly fading, but about to become a major fixture of the news and the black community. Ah well; more that I and other white liberals never guessed about the future, though by mid-1967 my first book , White Reflections On Black Power, undertook to grapple with its first wave.
The way is not so clear for Dr. King, primarily because during his entire career his whole stance has been not merely an economic one but more basically a moral one. He opposed segregation not simply because it was economically debilitating but because it was evil and unchristian. Perhaps such a focus on ethical matters was but part of a strategy, a necessity if the conscience of the non-southern white community was to be stirred and drawn into the struggle. If so, it now stands revealed as a two-edged sword, because many of the moral issues which Dr. King and the movement have raised in the restricted context of the segregated south have national and international contexts and implications as well. With the entry of the civil rights movement into the level of full national participation, the leaders are no longer just confronting the nation with its regional sins but are themselves confronted as full-fledged citizens and moral spokesmen with the issues of overall national policy.
I think I was right about the moral foundation for the movement here. But economics did not go away. Dr King returned to focus on it in his last year, with the plans for what became his last effort, the Poor Peoples Campaign. I wrote about that in my book Uncertain Resurrection; but it’s another story.
The most unsettling context for these issues is, of course, the war in Vietnam. Negro leaders, even up to last spring in Selma, frequently told draft-age males in their audiences that they had no business fighting for anything abroad until things were straightened out at home. Now, faced with the realities of tripled draft calls and Negro bodies being shipped home from southeast Asia, many are wishing they had kept their mouths shut. When some worker in Mississippi (who apparently hadn’t got the word) seriously suggested that Negroes refuse the draft, the resulting flap reverberated all the way to Harlem and back. The traditional Uncle Tom leadership hastily scrambled aboard the Johnson escalator; the militants, and Dr. King as the most successful and ethically articulate of them all, were thrown into a public quandary.
Dr. King is not known as a man of vacillation, yet his statements on the war seem curiously circumspect, almost tame. His staff is said to be deeply, even bitterly divided over strategy regarding a response to the war. Some have reportedly urged him to begin immediately an all-out effort to challenge the surrounding smokescreen of official doubletalk. Others are convinced that such a course is suicide; they contend that Dr. King and his organization would be Red-baited into bankruptcy and oblivion even within the Negro community. The few mild protests he has made are said already to have cut substantially into the donations coming into his Atlanta office. Given the permanently precarious finances of civil rights organizations, this makes further ventures even more risky.
Here I get to the point and the piece begins to hit its stride: In fact, Dr. King was being very circumspect in comments about the Vietnam war in those months. But I had also heard him, at a closed staff retreat in late 1965, say that eventually he would have to face up to the war, and take whatever criticism a more public stance provoked. “Eventually” still seemed to be far off when I wrote this piece — and when it was published.
At present Dr. King seems to be trying to walk a tortuous middle path: opposing the war as a matter of form but doing so as quietly as possible. Speaking to a support rally for unseated Georgia representative-elect Julian Bond, a SNCC staffer, King concentrated on the issue of free speech, not the SNCC statement opposing the war which brought on the legislative move. Perhaps Dr. King is biding his time, hoping to get his campaign against northern slums off the ground before tackling the broader issues of the war. There is something to be said for this as a matter of tactics.
Julian Bond, (1940-2015, educated in part at the Quaker George School in Pennsylvania), still young but a veteran civil rights activist, was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed. But in January 1966, the Georgia House refused to seat him because he had endorsed a public anti-Vietnam War statement. Some months later the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered that he be seated, and he served in the Georgia legislature for twenty years.
It is also possible, however, that Dr. King simply doesn’t yet know what to do. Challenging the war would mean an open break with the administration and the loss of all the perquisites of membership in the “great consensus.” In any case it seems unlikely that he can continue to be quiet in the face of continuing escalation of the fighting without seriously compromising his acknowledged role as a man of principle.
Though going through motions of support, the nation is clearly uneasy about the war. This self-conscious, almost guilty attitude is new in the national consciousness, and Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns can take much credit for its development. As the administration’s facade of “national honor” in Vietnam continues to be punctured by the responsible press, the underlying contradictions and moral evasions of our policy are brought home ever more forcefully to much of the informed public. Each new lapse of credibility, each new revelation of official immorality cries out the louder for rebuke and makes more critical the need for authentic moral challenge to the war.
Among all our truly national figures Dr. King is one of the few who are undeniably men of conscience.
Even now, I stand by that statement, while acknowledging that Dr. King had his flaws and sins: he plagiarized much of his doctoral dissertation; he was serially unfaithful to his wife. On the matters of racial justice and war, he was indeed moved by conscience, lived bravely, and paid for his witness with his life.
If there is to be any significant national reassessment of the Vietnam war and the policies it exemplifies, he could do more than anyone else to bring this about and his implicit acquiescence in the war would do the most to prevent any such reassessment. He cannot escape these facts. No one thrust as Dr. King has been onto the stage of world attention and conflict can ever again find a refuge in the sectional or minority cause from which he sprang. When he accepted the Nobel peace prize he baptized all races into his congregation and confirmed the world as the battleground for his gospel of nonviolence and reconciliation. He is no longer and probably never again can be a spokesman for just an American Negro minority. Simply because of his position in the world limelight, he cannot avoid confrontation with the ethical implications of national and international events.
Other voices, much more influential, were delivering similar messages to Dr. King. And he was listening. At the end of 1966, he went on a month-long private retreat. At an airport enroute, he picked up a magazine which had on its cover the unforgettable photo of a young Vietnamese girl (Kim Phuc, who survived horrible burns and scarring and now lives in Canada) running down a road, her back seared with burning napalm from U.S. bombers. The image reportedly shook him (as it shook many others, including me.) When King returned from his retreat, at the beginning of 1967, he was ready to take on the war with the full blast of his eloquence.
This is why as the Johnson administration talks of escalating the war beyond 450,000 men, of bombing Hanoi-Haiphong and even of confronting China on the Asian mainland the virtual silence of the unchallenged spokesman of American conscience becomes ever louder and more painful to those who have followed him thus far. The war in Vietnam is perhaps the gravest challenge of Dr. King’s career and conceivably its culmination. Who among us today could blame him if, faced with this dilemma, he agonizes over his course of action? No one, surely; but Martin Luther King, Jr., is not only answerable to us of today: he must walk with history as well. And if in his agony he should fail to act, it must be asked: can history forgive him?
Dr. King not only made peace with history — he made history when he took on the Vietnam War. His finest address on the war, “Beyond Vietnam,” given at the Riverside Church in New York City, was initially blasted by white Establishment voices (and some more cautious black ones). The Washington Postwas typical, declaring that he had thereby “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
I was among the several thousand packed into the Riverside Church to hear this address — delivered April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, and it fulfilled every aspiration expressed in my article. And despite the initial cascade of criticism, Dr. King’s witness, reinforced by that of others, and events in the war, turned much of this Establishment in his direction within a couple of years.
Dr. King did not live to see his sacrificial witness bear fruit. I did, and its personal impact has has never diminished. All of which makes this article, and this personal anniversary #51, more important than simply marking the first toehold in public print. Despite its youthful limitations, it discerned themes and concerns that continue to this day, and seem (alas) undiminished in their urgency.