MLK’s Political Evolution through the 1960s

Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and maybe we just have to give up and let violence take its course.  The nation won’t listen to our voice – maybe it’ll heed the voice of violence. – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968 (1)

In “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Cold War”, Thomas Noer describes how and why King’s outlook evolved during the 1960s.  Towards the beginning of the decade, King “tended to separate domestic issues from foreign affairs”.  He maintained a decidedly anti-Communist stance and refrained from expressing dissenting views on foreign policy, fearing that he would alienate supporters of desegregation.  But as he began visiting African countries, he started to see Civil Rights for African Americans as part of an anti-colonial struggle against white supremacy.  He praised Kwame Nkrumah as an inspiration and condemned the US for supporting the “tyranny” of South African apartheid.  He noted the US could use its surplus food to prevent people around the world from starving to death, but it lacked the desire to do so.  Whereas earlier he expressed that the US should win the Cold War, now he began praising Cold War neutralism.

By 1965, King had made selected and limited criticisms of aspects of US foreign policy, but with the violence of the war increasing, King began to feel a need to comment and intervene.  Advisors cautioned him against engaging the issue, as “polls showed that a majority of both black and white Americans supported the war”.  Nevertheless, King made a speech calling for negotiations between the US and North Vietnam, and called for a halt to US bombing.

King was stunned by the ferocity of the reaction to his speech.  He did not want to abandon his stance, but he did pause from speaking on the matter.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined King in his criticism of the war, but he was attacked by the New York Times, Lyndon Johnson, and many others.

A 1966 trip to Chicago was crucial in the continued evolution of King’s political analysis and his decision to continue to integrate foreign policy into his commentary.  He saw the extent of antiwar sentiment in urban ghettos and became aware that US aggression in Indochina was “not an aberration” but “an extension of deeply ingrained American values.”  He found that while middle class blacks supported the war, poor blacks “strongly opposed any US involvement” in Indochina.

King was shocked by the virulence of racism in the North.  He “claimed never to have experienced the racial hatred in Mississippi or Alabama that he encountered in Chicago”, and found that “many white supporters abandoned him” when he shifted his focus from Southern to Northern racism.  “Chicago taught him that racism was far more deeply ingrained and widespread.”  King now believed “most Americans are unconscious racists.”  He found in the North an “intractable opposition to racial equality.”

He also began to connect racism and economics, finding that Northern whites had an economic stake in maintaining black ghettos, which he said were, like poverty in India and Africa, examples of “white colonialis[t]” profiteering.  Ghettos were “domestic colon[ies]”.  Whereas his earlier criticism of US aggression in Vietnam was largely based on American violence, he now began placing the war “within a larger framework”: it was, he said, a colonialist venture driven by economics and racism.  He said the war was “not a tactical blunder or the product of a few malevolent individuals, but instead a symbol of America’s misguided values of materialism and racism that maintained the ghettos at home” and sought “white colonialism” abroad.

King gave major speech in April 1967 called “A Time to Break Silence”.  Whereas earlier he had called for negotiations between the US and North Vietnam, now he pointed out that South Vietnam did not want US intervention.  He “rejected” the claim that the US had “good intentions”, asserting its intentions were in reality dishonorable; that the US wanted to make Vietnam into a profitable “American colony”; that it considered profits “more important than people.”  He said this attitude generalized for US policy towards “Asia, Africa, and South America”, and US policy would not change until it abandoned “materialism and racism”, which would require a total restructuring of society.  He called on the US to “recognize the National Liberation Front [Vietcong] as a legitimate choice of the Vietnamese people”.

The reaction to the speech was “largely negative.”  Groups and leaders including the NAACP and Jackie Robinson “dissociated” from King.  WaPo and NYT condemned the speech.  Life used nationalist othering of King to manipulate readers emotionally, as did Johnson and Hoover.  Johnson requested that an African American former US government propaganda director write an op-ed attacking King.  The result, published in Reader’s Digest, expressed the idea that African Americans must demonstrate loyalty by supporting US aggression in Vietnam (and presumably elsewhere), and utilized nationalist othering to manipulate reader psychology.

King was discouraged but “did not retreat” as he had in 1965.  Instead, he invited black power movement and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael to Sunday services in Atlanta.  In a sermon, King defended his position on Vietnam, noting that while his stance was neither expedient nor popular, he had to take it because his conscience told him it was right.  In his final speech, he said there was a global revolution occurring against white supremacy; that people from North to South Africa, from New York to Tennessee, were yearning to be free.  He was assassinated the next day, on April 4, 1968.

Robert J. Barsocchini is a graduate student in American Studies. Years working as a cross-cultural intermediary for corporations in the film and Television industry sparked his interest in the discrepancy between Western self-image and reality.


(1) Quoted in Rhodes, Joel P. The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era. Praeger. 2001. 1. Rhodes notes the nation did not listen to the “voice of violence”, but rather interpreted it however it wanted, regardless of the clarity of the messaging.  The virtually uniform interpretation was from an in-group/0ut-group nationalist mentality that imagined the violence was being perpetrated by “outsiders” with no real grievances who were simply trying to create chaos and possibly overthrow the country.

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17 Responses to MLK’s Political Evolution through the 1960s

  1. Twinkletoes says:

    One person responsible for enlightening MLK about the brutality of the war in Vietnam and the harm it was causing to the children of that nation was a young American journalist named William Pepper. He brought back photos from Vietnam which so moved MLK that they helped lead him to take the decision to speak out against the Vietnam war.

    William Pepper became a personal friend of MLK during the last year of his life and after becoming a lawyer he spent 40 years investigating the circumstances around his death. He also represented the King family in a 1999 civil case against one of the suspects in an alleged assasination plot, one Loyd Joyers along with other unnamed co-conspirators. The jury in the civil case after hearing the evidence presented by Pepper returned a judgement in favour of the King family finding that MLK had been killed as a result of a conspiracy involving the accused Loyd Jowers and US government agencies. Dr Pepper has written several books on the MLK assassination culminating in a final volume in the series, “The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.”.

    Here in an interview with James Corbett of the Corbett Report he discusses how he came to meet MLK after returning from an assignment in Vietnam and the results of his 40 year investigation into MLK’s assassination as detailed in the book “The Plot to Kill King.”

  2. Rich says:

    “he had to take it because his conscience told him it was right.” King said he could no longer betray his conscience.

  3. ICFubar says:

    This article, while restricted to MLK’s enlightenment, his acts of conscience and direct opposition to those running the state, leading to his murder at their hands, leads the reader to ponder much larger questions on today’s situation and occurrences.

    Is the American Empire a nuanced carbon copy of the British Empire?
    Was the colonization of China by western enterprise and their financial backers (the international banking cabal) seen through by the Chinese elite and used to their advantage?
    Do the elites of China and their western counterparts have a common interest in a “One World Order” and systematic suppression of all peoples on this planet?
    Rather than overt racism. other than as a tool, is oppression by the state actually a matter of class warfare using many and varied control mechanisms?

    • CHUCKMAN says:

      Not a carbon copy at all.

      Britain ruled, at least with a viceroy, in the countries of its empire. It approved all high officials and the British monarch was generally the monarch of the various countries. It was always physically present in a public way.It even supplied a police force in many places, one often consisting of willing locals led by British officers and non-coms.

      Over time, the system underwent many alterations, including notions like “dominion status” and local parliaments.

      America pretends not to rule. British world maps had the empire’s countries in pink. American maps don’t do this.

      America has set a pattern of allowing each country to rule its internal affairs as it wishes, the appearance of democracy being preferred. Democracies like Marcos in the Philippines, Syngman Rhee in South Korea, or the PRI Party which ruled Mexico for seventy years.

      In less stable places, local dictators or kings are fine if they follow the rules. Examples include Jordan’s king or Egypt’s President or the past Shah of Iran.

      The key provisos are that the local government toes the American line in all foreign affairs and that the government not touch the operations of American foreign investors.

      All bets are off if either of these rules are violated.

      Indeed, such enforcement is a key job of the psychopaths in the operations branch of CIA. They are a non-uniformed army of enforcement and intimidation.

      Sometimes things go too far and direct military intervention is used, as in Panama some years back.

      Now, all of this applies to the seemingly independent parts of the American Empire. There is a “first tier” – places like the Virgin Islands or Guam or Puerto Rico – that are treated differently, treated as almost parts of the United States proper.

      • ICFubar says:

        Like I wrote a nuanced copy. Times have changed and today direct colonialism is frowned upon. The economic structure remains quite the same underneath the covering difference in applying rule. International law as it developed to include such articles as Lieber Code et al remain much the same as do those that control the monetary system, while national politics still serves the centers of power through the influences of a perpetuated old boys network. While the Brits relied more on direct rule through some Brit born figurehead the Americans shunning the label of colonialists put in place a local through which they rule. Rebellion or obstinance under both were/are put down viciously.

  4. Sparticus says:

    Peace is never the answer. Peace is inflicted upon the victims of tyranny so that the rulers can enjoy their rule. You have to topple tyranny. Wall Street and the NYSE make this very easy, today. All it takes is for Americans to wise up and realize nothing changes without FORCE and you have a Constitution that Authorizes its use, see: Citizens Arrest.

    If you want to be peaceful than you are bowing down to Master.

    Even your hero MLK says Violence is Necessary, you see, people, peace is a delusion sold to you by your rulers so that they can have “and enjoy” peace while they whip you into submission. America has the largest prison industrial complex ( and more laws than all dictatorships combined) none of you realize how this has affected your lives and made you slaves. Tru going fishing for dinner and see how many laws you can count? If Americans were “Americans,” they would feed “fish and game” to the fish. Your Founders agree with me, people!

    This is why I want a Total Refund.

  5. CHUCKMAN says:

    I’ve always believed J Edgar Hoover played a role in killing King.

    He truly loathed King, and he tried to get him to commit suicide earlier with terrible anonymous letters.

    When King switched from just civil rights – in itself, a source of resentment for Hoover who wouldn’t even let blacks become FBI agents – to anti-war and anti-American imperial policy, I think he became “an enemy of the people” in Hoover’s view.

    • nomadd says:

      a little paranoid in his obsession against blacks. maybe trying to assert his whiteness in the shadow of rumors otherwise. like a man overcompensating his masculinity under fears of sexual inadequacy.

      • CHUCKMAN says:

        But that’s all Hoover was, ever, and in all things, a bully.

        His behavior in every area of his efforts was the same, not just concerning black people.

        • nomadd says:

          im sure. but here we are talking about black people.

          • CHUCKMAN says:

            Oh, “we” are, are “we”?

            Your own tone suggests Hoover.

            I do think I can make a comment I think appropriate without being told I’m out-of-bounds – bounds set by one person.

          • nomadd says:

            i didnt say u were out of bounds. get over yourself. you made a general observation. i made a specific one. thats all. sheesh.

            hmmm… wonder what happened to the rest of my comment. guess i forgot to save it.
            i mentioned how you yourself said he was especially hostile towards blacks. get over yourself.

          • nomadd says:

            “my tone”

    • nomadd says:

      “Hitler’s Jewish ancestry isn’t the strangest twist in racial history.
      FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — the man who plagued the black liberation
      movement from Marcus Garvey to the Black Panther Party — was known by
      his peers as a passing black man.
      His childhood neighbor writer Gore Vidal famously quoted, “It was
      always said in my family and around the city that Hoover was mulatto.
      And that he came from a family that passed.”
      And apparently that was a closely-guarded secret. Millie McGhee, author of Secrets Uncovered: J. Edgar Hoover Passing For White, said,
      “In the late 1950’s, I was a young girl growing up in
      rural McComb, Mississippi. A story had been passed down through several
      generations that the land we lived on was owned by the Hoover family. My
      grandfather told me that this powerful man, Edgar, was his second
      cousin, and was passing for white. If we talked about this, he was so
      powerful he could have us all killed. I grew up terrified about all

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