Book 3: Crossing to Jerusalem (1967-1968)


New York, April 4, 1967

Christian churches were shaped like crosses to symbolize the church as the body of Christ. Their steeples scraped the sky to connect earth with heaven. The tallest point on Manhattan Island, high over the Hudson River, was Morningside Heights, home of Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. Upon this promontory the Rockefeller family, staunch Southern Baptists, built nondenominational Riverside Church in the depth of the Great Depression. Its twin steeples soared higher than those of the twelfth-century French cathedral at Chartres, its model.

Like a medieval castle towering over a valley of serfs, the Rockefellers’ grand cathedral stood heavenly guard over the valley of Harlem down below. Once the crown jewel of African-American cultural revival and economic hope, this black community that had been the promised land for many southern immigrants had sunk since the Depression into an impoverished ghetto. Like poor blacks in other cities, thousands of its citizens rose up in revolt during a hot summer the year before Watts.

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight,” Martin Luther King Jr., declared to the audience overflowing the long nave, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” He affirmed the sponsoring group, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, and its statement that “a time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

He had preached at Riverside Church before; this would be his last time there. He was on familiar intellectual ground. Riverside’s ministers, founder Harry Emerson Fosdick and successor Robert McCracken, had influenced his preaching. The luminaries of Union Seminary next door, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, had shaped his thinking, especially about justice and love. Although he supported the war, Niebuhr bore witness in the audience that night.

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night,” King continued, “have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak.” He spoke not only to break the betrayal of his own silence, but to break the ghastly silence of the war’s victims. In a larger sense he sought to give voice to voiceless humanity, forever the prophet’s duty.

He felt compelled to condemn the war for multiple reasons that bled into each other. First was the war’s destruction of the war on poverty at home that had appeared as a beacon of hope for America’s poor. “I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor, so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube, so I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor.”

Grievously, this demonic suction tube was ripping poor youth from their families to “fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

How could he ask the angry and desperate young men of the inner cities to trade their Molotov cocktails for picket signs when they would ask him: What about Vietnam? “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.”

Giving voice to the muted murmurs of the world’s faiths that all people were One, he imagined how the war, and the American government, were experienced by Vietnamese peasants and the “enemy,” not easily distinguished from the peasant sea. He encapsulated the history that few Americans knew: how the United States had refused to back Vietnamese independence after World War II, had paid for the French war to reconquer its former colony, had tricked Vietnamese nationalists in 1954 to accept temporary partition, had supported the corrupt Saigon regime in defying mandated elections to reunify the country, and had protected the regime with military advisers, covert action, air power, and finally ground troops, when repression, especially against Buddhists, provoked indigenous revolt led by communists.

“Surely we must understand their feelings,” King spoke of South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (NLF), “even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” Americans must have the wisdom to learn from the adversary’s story. Only then could a middle way of truth be found.

After calling for cessation of bombing and a ceasefire, he urged Americans to protest. He encouraged draft-age men to apply for conscientious objector status. He told his audience that they must understand the war as “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism “are incapable of being conquered.” He warned of future Vietnams in other Third World countries where U.S. foreign policy served the needs of corporate investment, rather than support the striving of the world’s poor for freedom from economic bondage.

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society. A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

“These are revolutionary times. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

He did not stop there. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for mankind. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.”

In his softly incendiary address, he gave air to “the burnings of my own heart.” He not only put forth, in the most public way, in the world’s media capital, a wrenching critique of U.S. policy in Vietnam; not only called for the obligation of protest and refusing to fight the war; not only condemned what leftists called imperialism. Sounding for all their differences like Malcolm X in his climactic year, he urged Americans to stop resisting the revolutionary tide in the world, rather to lead a world revolution against poverty, injustice, and exploitation. At the moment when “revolution” was starting to be fashionable, even faddish, among young radicals and the media, he exhorted Americans to make a true revolution driven by the power of love. He faced an uphill battle to make revolution, once again, a patriotic call, resonating with the American creed.

Unlike many Americans who came to oppose the war by 1967 or 1968, King never had any illusions about its moral soundness, never doubted whether it was right or wrong. Other influential Americans had been held back by ignorance, denial, partisanship, or uncertainty. What held King back from condemning the war unequivocally was a mix of fear, exhaustion, and concern about his effectiveness. He dreaded an ugly, all-out battle with the president who had done more for African Americans and civil rights than any president except Lincoln, more for poor people than any except FDR. King admired Johnson for his domestic reform (despite its shortcomings) as much as he loathed his bellicosity overseas. They had had an amicable personal relationship that it was important to King to preserve.

His own moral cowardice and hypocrisy had anguished him for two long years. To be sure, he had spoken out against the war from time to time, especially during the first six months of major escalation. But he had pulled his punches and spoken where he thought the media would not pay much attention. He was taken aback when his criticisms at a July 1965 civil rights rally in rural Virginia made news and upset President Johnson. King verged on apologetic in a phone conversation with him a few days later. He realized that he could not attack the war without directly attacking its commander-in-chief.

King’s early antiwar stand was bolstered by a letter he received in June 1965 from a young South Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who pleaded with him to oppose the war loudly. The letter tried to explain why his brother monks had immolated themselves in protest, which had spurred MLK’s initial opposition.

“The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest sufferings to protect his people. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and die for the sake of one’s people.

“I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too.”

King must have been struck by the consanguinity of the burning monks’ passion to that of Jesus dying on the cross, their faith like his that their unearned suffering would prove redemptive. Like Christian stalwarts the Buddhist monks strove to forge the fire of suffering into an instrument of social rebirth. The difference was also striking. The Buddhists chose this path of self-destruction, lit their own fire. Although King like Christ was suffering deeply for his commitments, and knew he would sacrifice his life, he did not feel it was his choice to die and he did not want to die before his appointed time. He would live a long life, if it were in his hands. The Buddhists had no God to make this decision; they had to decide for themselves. King’s own actions, like those of Jesus, were nonetheless sealing his fate. Like Jesus, he could have turned back at any time. But instead of turning back, he would keep doing God’s will until forces beyond his control hammered him to the cross.

King took his antiwar candle to the SCLC convention in August 1965. Four days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, handing the first pen to King, the SCLC chief announced to the Birmingham convention that he was launching his own peacemaking mission. The recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate wrote to leaders of all nations involved in the war, particularly LBJ and North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, urging serious negotiations. He called on Johnson to stop the bombing and to talk with the NLF. A resolution supporting King’s initiative cautioned that SCLC should not be distracted from the civil rights cause.

The White House blindsided him. Johnson had him briefed by U.N. ambassador Arthur Goldberg about apparent peace feelers that his effort might harm. Then the White House got Senator Thomas Dodd and other Congress members to rip his ineptness and disloyalty. He expressed his distress in a conference call with Stanley Levison, Andrew Young, and other advisers in mid-September 1965, recorded by the FBI.

“The press is being stacked against me,” he complained. They would accuse him of being “power drunk and that I feel that I can do anything because I got the Nobel Prize and it went to my head. I really don’t have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going. They have all the news media and TV and I just don’t have the strength to fight all these things. The deeper you get involved the deeper you have to go, and I’m already overloaded and almost emotionally fatigued. I think we have to admit that I am going too far.” Without objection from his advisers he decided to drop his peace mission.

“I have to find out how I can gracefully pull out,” he told them, “so that I can get on with the civil rights issue, because I have come to the conclusion that I can’t battle these forces who are out to defeat my influence,” that “are going to try to cut me down.” A year and a half later he confided to his staff that “my name then wouldn’t have been written in any book called Profiles in Courage,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller by John F. Kennedy.

He might have been emboldened to carry on had he been supported by the civil rights community, but his initiative—not wholly backed by his own organization—was criticized by mainstream groups such as the NAACP. Nor did SNCC or CORE embrace his actions.

Like King, SNCC activists had nursed anger about the war since early 1965, especially when field staff were called for induction. A handful refused to go and were handed maximum five-year terms by southern federal judges. But except for Robert Moses, whom American Nazis had pelted with red paint in an August protest, they had remained fairly quiet. By January 1966 SNCC leaders could no longer contain their outrage. They put out a strong statement opposing the war, reviling the government for hypocrisy in pretending to defend freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia when it refused to do so in southeast America. The statement supported those who resisted the draft in order to build democracy at home. It asked plaintively, “Where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?”

Protesting at the Atlanta induction center, SNCC coined the slogan, “Hell no, we won’t go!” SNCC was attacked by the media, politicians, and black moderates. The Georgia legislature refused to seat newly elected state representative Julian Bond, a SNCC activist, for opposing the war. King lambasted the legislature for violating the Constitution and suppressing dissent.

Although SNCC had not joined King earlier against the war, now they were pushing him to speak out more strongly, partly to give their own antiwar stand legitimacy, to shield themselves from recrimination. Stokely Carmichael, who replaced John Lewis as SNCC’s chairman in May 1966, made it his mission to move King forward on the war. As the Black Power movement emerged out of Lowndes County, Alabama, it condemned the war as fiercely as it did racism, seeing them as sides of the same coin.

Throughout 1966 King spoke occasionally against the war and the massive bombing and once appeared with Thich Nhat Hanh at a Chicago press conference. Although SCLC officially scored the war, he turned down invitations to speak at peace rallies, rallies he had earlier encouraged. A few times he asked Coretta King, longtime pacifist and member of Women Strike for Peace, to speak in his place. King and advisers rationalized his rationing of antiwar rhetoric as more effective than continuous salvos. But he was lying low, praying for peace but not acting, risking. The slamming of his 1965 peace mission taught him that Vietnam was a political minefield. Unlike Vietnamese monks, he was not ready to burn. And he did not want the lash of Lyndon Johnson’s wrath. If nonviolence was about turning enemies into friends, he was unhappy about turning his tall Texan friend into a foe.

But the war kept hemorrhaging. By end of 1966, nearly 400,000 U.S. troops were deployed in South Vietnam, twice as many as a year earlier. Several thousand had come home in coffins. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians had been killed; hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their villages. The negotiation route was going nowhere. King’s outward passivity belied his growing disquiet, the rumbling of his conscience. Friends joining him for the 1966 Thanksgiving holiday recalled his obsession with the war and nonstop arguments. He was groping his way out of his prison cell of silence.

The point of no return came in mid-January 1967. He was waiting for a plane at Atlanta airport, flying to Jamaica for a month of rest and reflection and to write his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here. He bought a copy of Ramparts, the glossy New Left magazine, at a newsstand. Over lunch his eyes seized on an article, “The Children of Vietnam,” graphic photos of kids fiendishly burned by American napalm bombs. His aide Bernard Lee recalled that “he froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military.” He pushed his plate away from him.

“Doesn’t it taste any good?” Lee knew how his boss loved to eat.

“Nothing will ever taste any good for me,” he replied testily, “until I do everything I can to end that war.” This was the moment that he committed himself to stop it, regardless of the political or personal cost.

* * *

Small protests against the Vietnam intervention, organized mainly by radical pacifists, had occurred sporadically ever since an August 1963 demonstration against the Saigon regime’s harsh persecution of Buddhists, some of whom had set themselves on fire. The groundswell had become a “movement,” though small compared to its civil rights sister, when in April 1965 Students for a Democratic Society pulled off an unexpectedly impressive march of about twenty-five thousand who picketed the White House, rallied at the Washington Monument, and marched on the Capitol. A month earlier University of Michigan students and faculty organized an all-night “teach-in” that drew thousands. The idea was quickly copied at a hundred other campuses. Antiwar scholars debated State Department “truth teams” before large audiences.

That summer, during the twentieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings, the “Assembly of Unrepresented People” gathered in Washington for workshops and direct action. It was designed to connect Vietnam with voting rights and other issues, to create a peace and freedom movement. On the final day a few hundred were arrested as they tried nonviolently to invade the Capitol with a “Declaration of Peace.” On the West Coast, protesters in Oakland sat down in front of army trains carrying soldiers bound for Vietnam. The Assembly of Unrepresented People gave birth to the first antiwar coalition, composed of thirty-three organizations. In mid-October 1965 a worldwide protest filled the streets of a hundred cities from New York to Tokyo. Another big Washington march took place over Thanksgiving.

As the war expanded, opponents felt an increasing urgency to end it, testified by the hundreds who engaged in civil disobedience. A handful chose to sacrifice everything. In early November Norman Morrison, a thirty-two-year-old Quaker from Baltimore, sat down below Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s office window at the Pentagon, poured kerosene over his body, and died in a small inferno.

“I reacted to the horror of his action,” McNamara recalled, “by bottling up my emotions and avoided talking about them with anyone—even my family. I knew Marg and our three children shared many of Morrison’s feelings about the war, as did the wives and children of several of my cabinet colleagues. I believed I understood and shared some of his thoughts. The episode created tension at home that only deepened as dissent and criticism of the war continued to grow.”

A week later Roger LaPorte, a young Catholic Worker activist who had just witnessed a draft card burning—hecklers had yelled, “Burn yourselves, not your cards!”—immolated himself in front of the United Nations. Alice Herz, an eighty-two-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, had set herself aflame on a Detroit street. She wrote a note to her daughter: “I choose the illuminating death of a Buddhist to protest against a great country trying to wipe out a small country for no reason.”

The movement that grew so quickly in 1965 appeared to drag its feet the next year. Little noticed by the media, much was stirring at the grass roots, especially on campuses. Activists were building for the long haul. Key events took place that enlarged the opposition, including Senator J. William Fulbright’s televised Vietnam hearings, peace campaigns for Congress, and more marching. Antiwar pop songs climbed to the top of the charts, notably Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”

Though belied by his official rhetoric, the commander-in-chief seemed to be getting the message. With the failure of air attacks on oil storage depots in North Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed Johnson to order unrestrained bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in late 1966. At his request they brought a team of Pentagon “whiz kids” to the Oval Office to prove their case.

“I have one more problem for your computer,” said LBJ. “Will you feed into it how long it will take five hundred thousand angry Americans to climb that White House wall out there and lynch their president if he does something like that?” Although some populated targets remained off-limits, the air war steadily expanded. American troops kept pouring into South Vietnam, to reach half a million by end of 1967. The war seemed as relentless and intractable as it was indeterminate. It was truly a “stalemate machine,” as Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg called it.

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