On April 4, 1967, a crowd of almost four thousand gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the pulpit of New York City’s Riverside Church. King denounced the Vietnam War in unequivocal terms. “I come to this platform to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation,” he explained early in the speech. King’s criticism of military escalation in Vietnam and the declining effectiveness of the war on poverty had severed his political alliance with President Lyndon Johnson. The Great Society’s political shortcomings were now an unfolding moral disaster—“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.” Racial apartheid’s grip on American democracy, argued King, corrupted the nation in war and peace, hurling large numbers of poor black and white soldiers toward a death march in international slaughter fields. King challenged America’s moral and political authority to wage war in Vietnam by comparing the military’s use of force overseas to the black youth throwing Molotov cocktails to wage rebellion in urban ghettos. Both used violence in service of larger ambitions that, King suggested, represented political and moral dead ends.
Riverside marked King’s transition from a civil rights leader into a political revolutionary, one who refused to remain quiet in the face of domestic and international crises. The speech represented the boldest political decision of his career. Despite King’s proclaimed belief in the roots of American democracy, he publicly assailed the hypocrisy behind the country’s posture as liberty’s surest guardian around the world. In the months before his death, Malcolm X, too, had discussed the Vietnam War, marveling at how courageous peasants, “with nothing but sneakers on and a rifle,” were defying the world’s greatest military power. But even as King decried America as pursuing a catastrophic trajectory rooted in greed, violence, and racism, he found optimism in the potential for democratic transformation. At Riverside, King assumed Malcolm’s previous role as black America’s prosecuting attorney, publicly denouncing the war in Vietnam by offering a political seminar on American imperialism, racism, and economic injustice that announced his formal break with mainstream politics.
In a preemptive strike against critics who would accuse him of confusing his civil rights leadership with foreign policy expertise, King cited Langston Hughes, “the black bard of Harlem,” explaining that “America never was America to me.” “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” reasoned King, “part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.” King was squarely confronting American political hubris by characterizing the Vietnam War as the nation’s Achilles’ heel. He considered foreign policy analysis to be a substantive part of his role as a civil rights leader. Domestic and international struggles for justice and equality were never mutually exclusive but, on the contrary, intimately connected in a manner that demanded forthright criticism. For King, America remained, at its best, a country filled with unrealized potential—as Hughes’ poetry brilliantly evoked—but whose promise receded the further the nation strayed from its core values of liberty, freedom, and democracy. King characterized American soldiers in Vietnam as “the victims of our nation” and “strange liberators” who ravaged peaceful villages, killed innocents, and impoverished peasants. His anti-war criticism echoed and amplified Malcolm X’s denunciations before his death, when he characterized Vietnam as “the struggle of the whole Third World” against Western imperialism.