— And I can’t forget Florida Governor Rick Scott: he did what it took. So did UF President W. Kent Fuchs; and some others, we’ll get to shortly. [NOTE: Update on shooting arrests below.]
[BTW: I wasn’t in Gainesville, this commentary is based on reports from several respected media who were on the scene, especially: the Orlando Sentinel; the Miami Herald; the Gainesville Sun; and the Washington Post.]
It’s early, but the speech by Richard Spencer at the University of Florida on October 19 could turn out to be an important precedent, and a “teachable moment” for American colleges.
One part of this precedent is that on a 52,000 student campus, the vast majority agreed with leaders of many stripes, and stayed away.
Without an audience, Richard Spencer is just another racist nobody. He’s made a name for himself out of stoking prejudice and he counts on stirring enough emotion to draw crowds and publicity and keep his hateful gig rolling along. There’s only one antidote to this kind of modern-day creep: Don’t make his ruse worth his while. Let him speak, but don’t reward him with your presence. Stay home. Play some Beatles. Imagine.
But we don’t have to imagine: in fact, the auditorium where Spencer spoke was no more than half-full.
Not long ago, over a friendly lunch near a progressive college, I told the story below to a rising young academic.
As he listened, his eyes widened. Then he shook his head, and put down his fork.
“You could never do that now,” he said quietly.
Did I hear regret? Maybe even a touch of apprehension? (Was it: You couldn’t do that now, because “they” wouldn’t let you? Or, “they” (maybe a different “they”) would stop you from doing it, by force if need be?)
I wasn’t surprised at this reaction. Not today. But then, and there, we would have thought it outlandish, even absurd.
“Then” was the fall of 1963; “there” was Colorado State University, or CSU, which was spreading out along the front range of the Rockies, an hour or so north of Denver.
And “we” were Dennis Lone, editor of the Collegian, the campus paper, and me, a budding writer who produced a widely-read, pot-stirring weekly column for his pages.
On a Saturday morning in September, Dennis and I were hanging out in the Collegian office. It was otherwise deserted: the paper didn’t print on weekends.
We were bored. Our social lives were nothing to brag about. The CSU football team was on a record-setting 28-game losing streak. Culturally, CSU was then a backwater, deep in what would one day become “flyover country.”
From a far away Outside World, faint echoes could be heard of civil rights protests and political struggles, but most were shrugged off in what a few of us decried as our “hotbed of apathy.”
I slouched; he smoked. When Dennis, who had been paging through a thick weekend issue of the Rocky Mountain News, said, “Hey, listen to this,” I only half-perked up.
“It looks like James Meredith is coming to Denver.”
I sat up straight. “What?” I said again.
He read a brief notice, announcing that Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi in September of 1962, was to speak to the Denver chapter of the NAACP.
“Wow, that sounds exciting,” I said.
Meredith’s arrival on the Mississippi campus had set off riots that killed two, and required federal troops to quell. Until he graduated in August 1963, he had federal marshals as constant bodyguards when attending classes.
As Dennis read, I grew wistful. “I wish he was coming to speak here, too,” I said. “But you know this place. . . .”
Dennis looked up. “We could ask him,” he said, with an offhand practicality.
“Could we really?” I said. “How?”
Dennis was a reporter, and he was thinking like one: a former Collegian editor now worked at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Dennis called him, got an NAACP contact, who gave him an address in Mississippi. But no phone number.
“Oh no,” I fretted, “There’s not enough time to write him a letter.”
Dennis was undaunted. “We could send him a telegram.”
A telegram! I’d never sent one. Didn’t they cost a fortune?
Not really, it turned out, if one kept them brief. And ours was: would he come speak at CSU while he was in Colorado?
I was excited, but still skeptical: A living specimen of that distant Outside World — here, at Apathy State U, up in Backwater County? It seemed very unlikely. But what the hey? The worst he could say was “No.” Worth a shot.
And two days later, Dennis was waving a pale yellow telegram reply in my face: “Meredith says yes!”
That is, James Meredith said “Yes,” he’d be happy to speak at CSU–for $500. (About $4000 in 2017 cash.)
It was a reasonable price. But there was a hitch: we didn’t have it.
But we got past this hurdle: after some pleading, the student legislature reluctantly agreed to underwrite the fee, and we agreed to collect admission of fifty cents each ($4 in 2017 money) to help recover it.
Then Dennis and I shamelessly exercised our media influence to hype the talk: I wrote a column, he published articles, the buzz spread, our hopes were high.
Sure enough: something like 1300 students and faculty filled most of the Student Center’s big ballroom, likely a record. The turnout meant we not only covered Meredith’s fee: the student legislature — to their amazement– actually made a profit.
Further, Meredith’s speech hit the mark. No stemwinder, he didn’t try to compete with Dr. King or other eloquent movement orators. Instead, he calmly told of growing up respectably poor, joining the Air Force, and wanting to use his veteran’s benefits to become the first in his family to attend college, at a state-supported university.
The room was pin-drop quiet as this basically undramatic story unreeled. That’s because, apart from the riots which it evoked, it was very familiar to many of those present: CSU was not an elite school, with generations of legacy admissions. Many listening were likewise among the first in our families to go beyond high school. Veterans’ benefits after World War Two and Korea –and low public college tuitions –played a big part in opening those doors; the same was true for many of the CSU faculty.
So even though Meredith was speaking to a virtually all-white crowd, across unimaginable cultural gaps of slavery and segregation, the basic arc of his aspirations was something many in this CSU audience could relate to at a deep level. The fact that Meredith’s path became a death-defying quest gave it depth without the need for soaring rhetorical flourishes. And among the many who were moved by his words was me.
I was also moved before the speech by an unexpected behind-the-scenes shock: to save on expenses, I had invited Meredith to stay at my fraternity, called FarmHouse. Members were permitted to do this, occasionally, and I hadn’t done it before.
What I had done, though, before I joined FarmHouse, was check its Bylaws, to see if they included discriminatory membership clauses (still common in those days). They didn’t. Their motto, “We Build Men,” was okay too.
Further, in those years FarmHouse regularly won the trophy for the highest grade average of any frat at CSU.
All good. But personal attitudes, unspoken til now, were something else. When word spread around the house about what I had done, I was pulled into an impromptu chapter meeting, and was stunned to hear several members declare that they couldn’t accept having a black person stay in the house. Before I had absorbed these comments, a vote was taken and my invitation to Meredith was overruled.
I staggered out, wondering if I had been teleported to Mississippi, and began writing a resignation letter in my head.
But the next morning, word of this decision had somehow reached the CSU administration. Our chapter president was summoned, and reportedly read the riot act. I don’t know what was said, but expect it went something like this:
“Do you know what will happen when this hits the press? A man who had to have the army escort him into a public university was turned away by a group at CSU? Do you want that spotlight pointed at FarmHouse? And your alma mater? Do you expect us to put up with that?”
The fraternities were private groups, but were chartered by the university; and what CSU gave, CSU could take away.
After lunch that same day, another emergency chapter meeting was convened. The officers told us the house and its reputation were on the line; news of the refusal would be devastating.
Two or three of the hardliners against inviting Meredith stood to agree. They said that “somebody” (sneering in my direction), had snitched to the authorities and betrayed our brotherhood. Now we all had to swallow hard, bite the bullet, and save its good name from the traitor.
Another vote was taken; the invitation was sullenly, reluctantly revived.
Meredith did stay at FarmHouse, without incident. While with him at dinner that evening, I noticed a few absences; no doubt a number of the hard core took shelter elsewhere. But as we left the house for the student center, he never suspected a thing.
No word of this incident leaked out (until now); the FarmHouse reputation was saved. But it ruined my relationships there; I did resign a few months later.
And my conscience was clear. I hadn’t called the administration. My guess was a conscience-stricken officer had done it, or someone else was bragging too loud where somebody outside heard him. Instant karma, even then.
The morning after his speech, Meredith returned to Mississippi; Dennis and I basked in the afterglow of our successful debut as accidental undergraduate impresarios.
A couple of days later, we held an open discussion where students and faculty could talk about what Meredith had to say. Following the meeting, a student came up to us and said, “So you’ve presented one side of the issue. Are you going to present the other?”
Light bulbs appeared above our heads: if we could do this once, why not do it again?
Soon Dennis was back on the phone.
He called the office of Arizona’s Republican Senator, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was running for president and was an opponent of the civil rights bill then in Congress ; but no dice. I think they figured conservative Colorado was in the bag (if so, they were very mistaken: Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 23 points in his 1964 landslide. But that’s another story.)
However, two pro-segregation insurgents were eager to visit CSU: one was Ross Barnett, at that time the governor of Mississippi who had vowed to keep Meredith out of “Ole Miss”; the other was George Wallace, the sitting governor of Alabama. Both came in January 1964.
By the time Barnett got to CSU, he was out of office, so he traveled on a commercial flight sans retinue. Barnett was fascinating, in a repulsive way: he shouted more than spoke, and in his ranting we could imagine him stumping his mostly rural state, exploiting the fear and rage of a poorly-educated white electorate. But as he finished, I understood much better why it took federal troops to get Meredith enrolled at “Ole Miss,” and a continuous bodyguard detail to keep him alive there.
But Barnett was old news compared to George Wallace who, as a sitting governor, traveled on an Alabama state aircraft with an assortment of aides and bodyguards. Where Barnett voiced the racism of yesteryear, Wallace was preaching an updated racist gospel for 1963–and, we now know, for decades to come. He too was running for president, but as an insurgent Democrat, and would soon be shaking up primaries in seemingly enlightened states like Wisconsin.
Wallace was slick and smart. He fenced deftly and often humorously with our questioning local liberals. His speeches were peppered with attacks on intellectuals and “pinkos,” loud calls to “Send Them a message” about “law and order,” mixed with populist promises of raising Social Security payments. His themes and memes exposed deep veins of rhetorical ore which was to be refined into winning campaign messages by his rightwing populist successors for a half-century to come (and counting). And we got to watch him do it.
After that busy January, Dennis and I were on a roll. We had brought voices from the Outside World into our backwater, and they were stirring the pot, waking us up. Both Barnett and Wallace brought out protest picketers (peaceful), a new thing at CSU. But did putting racist reactionaries like Wallace and Barnett allow them to peddle their political wares, influence students, recruit followers?
Good question. And for sure, the two influenced me. Not to become a supporter; just the opposite. But they, along with Meredith, showed me the reality of forces and ideas that were previously only occasional headlines.
Yet who knows, maybe some among the large crowds we gathered bought into parts or all of their platform. (After all, in 2016, 52 years later, 43 per cent of Colorado’s voters cast ballots for a racist populist, one of George Wallace’s direct heirs. No question: ideas have consequences.)
But after three speeches that had happened almost accidentally, we decided to take a more thoughtful approach. Political and social extremes were becoming more apparent in the country, underscored by the national trauma of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963.
So why not present a series of speeches on the theme of extremism? We had been on both sides of civil rights; what if we next went with a right-wing extremist, followed with a left-wing extremist, and wound up with Attorney General Robert Kennedy talking about the impact of extremism in the country.
(RFK? “Hey,” as Dennis said, “if you’re gonna dream, dream big.”)
We didn’t get Kennedy. And neither of us was particularly political. But like all red-blooded Americans in 1963 and 1964, we knew Communism was The Enemy. So what about a Communist?
Now this, we dimly perceived, could in fact be controversial; while we were vague on the details (I knew nothing of the Hollywood Ten, and little of McCarthyism), we knew that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still warning us that they (or their dupes) were everywhere — even if, in fact, actual Communist speakers often had great difficulty getting a hearing.
Yet we had listened to Wallace and Barnett, and the sky didn’t fall. So why stop now?
But things weren’t quite so easy this time around. Dennis gave it his best shot. But in 1963, after years of hysteria, the American Communist Party barely existed. Its membership had been decimated by years of government persecution and FBI Infiltration. It had also lost credibility with many former members, disillusioned by the party’s unshakably loyalty to the repressive Soviet regime.
The U.S. party leader, Gus Hall, was based in New York. He did give speeches on college campuses, but was an early denizen of “flyover country,” and we failed to tempt him to add a stop in Colorado.
While we worked on finding another suitably notorious Communist, we also set out to get a right-wing spokesman. This one was easier.
What was the most right-wing organization in the country? The Nazi Party, of course. And George Lincoln Rockwell, its flamboyant leader, was only too happy to talk to anyone who would listen. One telegram and he was set to go.
When Rockwell came, we moved to a smaller theater space in the student center, where it was still standing room only. Rockwell’s speech was a bombastic stream of bizarre sociological and anthropological “facts” that added up to, “they’re bad and we’re good.” I remember him saying that there were “breeds of people, just like breeds of dogs.” Dennis and I did not sit on a platform with him, as we had the others; the front row was close enough.
Rockwell caused lots of talk. A few days after his speech, some sociology professors held an open discussion they titled, “Is George Lincoln Rockwell a Closet Homosexual?”
While many dismissed Rockwell as a kind of evil clown, and he was murdered by own of his own in 1967, he remains a cult figure for sectors of the rightwing which are still around.
Meanwhile, after he left we didn’t have any luck booking more speakers.
Which in some ways was a relief; I was a senior, preparing to move on from CSU, and Dennis still had a newspaper to put out. Then one day Dennis got a call at the Collegian office from CSU’s President, William E. Morgan. Morgan, who was genuinely respected by the students and faculty (and by us), told Dennis he had just talked to an alumnus, who referred to our speakers and wanted to know who was going to appear on campus next, Mao Zedong?
Dennis couldn’t resist: “If I thought we could get him,” he said, “I’d send him a telegram today.”
President Morgan said he supported what we had done and still would if we wanted to continue, but wanted us to know that some people outside CSU were taking a dim view of our activities.
He didn’t say anything about our speaker series in public; he didn’t have to. But would Morgan really have stuck with us if we had found a Communist? I believe so, although he would likely have taken some more heat. And as a political appointee, answerable to the state legislature for budgets, it could have gotten difficult for him.
So, given our problems with lining up speakers, the apparent decline in interest among the students, and our own distractions, our series quietly petered out, after what still seems like a pretty good run.
Looking back from half a century-plus, Dennis and I have somewhat different feelings about our season of applying the First Amendment. For Dennis, never one to be burdened by gravitas, it was all a fun adventure, on a par with the time he sent Collegian reporters (including Chuck) to infiltrate the local American Legion stag show and report on which city officials attended. He would have been incredulous if anyone had suggested we couldn’t or shouldn’t bring the speakers.
For me (Chuck) It was also a lot of fun, notwithstanding my frat house ordeal. Yet I also took much of it to heart. And it still seems like something close to what college is supposed to be about, even the difficult parts: hearing and grappling not only with unwelcome and even offensive ideas, but also the people who advocate them.
One more time, I agree with those who say today that speech has consequences: I left CSU after the summer sessions of 1964, and within six months was in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama.
“First of all, I pulled some punches with Cuba. Would’ve passed them by completely — the folks there have fer sure suffered enough from the stupid US boycott — but there’s still the official corruption.
And then Florida — which can’t be separated from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee & Mississippi. First of all, this is the absolute heartland of lynchings; a couple thousand at least, and if you think all that blood doesn’t still cry out like tinnitus in my ears every day, you’re deef as a post.
Next, because I already whacked the Carolinas last year, and NC got enough of the message to elect a Dem guvnor & kinda “repeal” that HB (Hell Bill) Two. It was a start; but that loudmouth Franklin Graham is getting on my last nerve.Continue reading God(DESS) Explains IRMA’S Track→
Politico noted Tuesday the death from cancer of Michael Cromartie, a longtime staffer at the very right-wing but carefully-high-toned Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC) in DC.
I knew Cromartie a bit in the ’80s. He & EPPC even tried to recruit me for their efforts to discredit anti-Vietnam protests (in anticipation of defending new US wars).
Perhaps I seemed a good prospect: I could write; I’d been an active antiwar protester, but had also publicly criticized some of the extremists & crazies in the movement; and (not least, for EPPC’s laserlike focus on the Ivies & their ilk) I had attended Harvard Divinity School.
Many Americans of a certain age– who watched the unfolding of the Watergate scandal after the 1972 election, recall it, rightly, as a heroic and spellbinding drama.
In it, unexpected & unlikely champions stepped forth in Washington to snatch truth and the Constitution from the hands of a crooked president and his minions. Two southern Senators, Tennessee Republican Howard Baker and North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, aided by dogged special prosecutors, led this successful rescue mission. Continue reading Watergate Reruns, Richard Burr & Other Pipe Dreams→
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.
The Handmaid’s Taleis a novel. The story below is not. It is true, and it happened in 1990, but its reverberations are still being felt, and are maybe stronger and deeper now than when they burst into view. Margaret Atwood’s fictional vision was directly relevant to it — as well as that of another novel which became its mirror image. Read on to understand why.
It begins with a showdown at Silver Bay, involving witches versus demons.
I. Gilead Meets the Goddess
New York Yearly Meeting gathers at Silver Bay, a resort complex on Lake George, north of Albany. Silver Bay is a lovely and peaceful setting, to which many New York Quakers return as pilgrims each summer seeking rest and renewal among Friends.
When the yearly meeting gathered in July of 1990, rest and renewal seemed in short supply. The 1980s had not been easy for New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM).
While many other unprogrammed yearly meetings were growing, New York’s membership declined by about ten per cent; the body struggled to meet its budget; and worst of all, its annual sessions were wracked by chronic wrangling, over doctrine and morals. An effort to rewrite its Faith and Practice, pending since 1977, dragged on abrasively throughout the decade; by 1990, this process had become so acrimonious that the Yearly Meeting put it on hold for a year.
In its travail, New York had become a kind of field laboratory for an ongoing experiment in institutional Quaker ecumenism. Unfortunately, in the latter years of the 1980s, many of the results of this test had not been promising, and never more so than at its 1990 session.
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.
It’s Top Ten List season, and how can I refuse? Yet out of more than 130 blog posts, how can I choose?
One way is to do it by the numbers: And the clear #1 on that score went up on February 12. It called out the slighting comments made by Congressman & civil rights legend John Lewis about Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the thick of a hard-fought primary struggle with Hillary Clinton.
I revere John Lewis; but the post also stood up for Sanders’ activist record as a college student — not as a movement hero or leader, but as one of many who did his bit, took his lumps, and had been a loyal ally for fifty-plus years since.