top of page
  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Standing Up for Humanity in Times of Great Moral Crisis: The Price Martin Luther King Paid for Opposing the Vietnam War

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on May 1, 2024

IMAGE: American soldiers in Long Binh, Vietnam, observe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on January 15, 1971, fifteen years before it was first observed as a federal holiday.

An Editorial Opinion

A Harris Poll conducted during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s final year of life revealed that nearly three-quarters of the American people thought he was persona non grata, and almost 60% of his black Americans thought he was irrelevant.

Most white Americans turned against Dr. King after he opposed the Vietnam War. An April 4, 2018, article in the Smithsonian magazine explains why.

In April 1967, Dr. King denounced America’s involvement in Vietnam, once at his own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and once at Riverside Church in New York before 3,000 people, on April 4 -- precisely a year before he was killed. Dr. King decried the hypocrisy of sending young Black men “eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem.” Beyond that lay the painful irony of seeing them join white soldiers, with whom they could “hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta,” in “brutal solidarity” as they torched “the huts of a poor village.” In this, they were, however unwittingly, agents of a U.S. policy that destroyed and depopulated the countryside, forcing its former inhabitants to take refuge in cities teeming with “hundreds of thousands of homeless children” who were “running in packs on the streets like animals.”

The consequences of Dr. King’s outspoken opposition to the war were swift and severe. An outraged President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact with King. And a great number of black Americans -- including many old allies and colleagues from the civil rights years -- warned that his stance could have devastating consequences for their cause.

In the end, Dr. King stayed the course. He was assasinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting protests by city sanitation workers who were striking for liveable wages. Dr. King was right in his views about the Vietnam War.

Today, Dr. King is celebrated with a national holiday in his honor and the King Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

Dr. King was my Sunday School teacher, pastor, and BTU instructor at Dexter Avenue Church when I was a young child in Montgomery. Like King, I feel compelled to speak out against Israel’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Gaza.

In the name of national defense, Israel is committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against innocent Palestinians in Gaza. My moral code will not allow me to: (a) rationalize Israel’s war crimes, (b) normalize them in exchange for money or some other economic benefit, and/or (c) turn my head away from them to escape harsh criticism from powerful Jewish special interest groups.

If I am not liked by American war hawks because I stand up for humanity in the Israel-Hamas war, so be it. If President Biden is angry at me because I publicly exposed his complicity in Israel’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and campaign of genocide against people of color in Gaza, so be it.

As was the case with Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, I want to be on the right side of history in this war. After the fog from Israel's war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Gaza clears around the world, I want my children and grandchildren to know that I was on the right side of history in the Israel-Hamas war. Moral leadership begins in the family.

To me, it is better to be right than liked on this issue.

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Kamar Jones
Kamar Jones
May 01
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

King wasn't that popular with the establishment before his death. It was after his death that he finally received recognition for the many things he helped drive to move America forward. He started to get flak for opposing the Vietnam War, which he didn't have to, and challenging the economic inequality of blacks. He started advising building a black economic base, which received a lot of pushback and is rarely discussed today.

bottom of page