MLK Day 2020: Honor the Antiwar Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC, SNCC and other organizations all took strong positions against imperialist militarism during the Vietnam era

Martin Luther King, Jr. marches with other Civil Rights, Labor and Antiwar leaders in Chicago on March 25, 1967 against the Vietnam War
Martin Luther King, Jr. marches with other Civil Rights, Labor and Antiwar leaders in Chicago on March 25, 1967 against the Vietnam War. | Photo: Jo Freeman

By Abayomi Azikiwe

Monday, January 20, marks the 91st birthday commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). Since 1986, the federal government has recognized the third Monday in January as a national holiday where many workplaces and educational institutions are closed.

What is routinely ignored and deliberately hidden about the legacy of Dr. King was his ever-evolving social vision which encompassed the worsening crisis in Vietnam during the mid-to-late 1960s.

Dr. King, in response to the mounting casualties among both United States troops and Vietnamese people, coupled with the positions taken earlier by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP, 1965) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1966) against the genocidal occupation and massive bombing of Vietnam, came out clearly against the war during the early months of 1967.

Initially there were a series of letters published in African American magazines and newspapers opposing the defense policies of the-then President Lyndon B. Johnson during January. Later, on February 25, Dr. King delivered a lecture entitled “The Casualties of the Vietnam War” at a conference sponsored by The Nation magazine in Los Angeles, California.

On March 25, 1967, the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led, along with other peace activists, a march in downtown Chicago against the Vietnam War. Just over a week later on April 4, Dr. King gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City where he thoroughly spelled out the SCLC position condemning the Johnson administration and calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.

Only 11 days after this earth-shattering speech at Riverside Church, Dr. King marched through Manhattan to the United Nations on April 15, leading tens of thousands in one of the earlier mass demonstrations calling for an end to the Vietnam War. A delegation including Dr. King presented a petition to then UN Secretary General U Thant calling for the intervention of the international body in the struggle to end the war.

Martin Luther King, Jr. at United Nations march against the Vietnam War on April 15, 1967
Martin Luther King, Jr. at United Nations march against the Vietnam War on April 15, 1967. | Photo: Benedict J. Fernandez, Museum of the City of New York

In response to the views of the SCLC, SNCC and other progressive organizations in the African American community, many newspapers published scathing editorials calling these leaders disloyal and even traitors to the U.S. government. The Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the 1950s and enhanced during the 1960s with a special focus on the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, was utilized in an effort to destabilize and discredit the legitimate demands of the African American community and its allies within other sectors of the population.

It was exactly one year after Dr. King’s major policy address at Riverside Church that he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. The Civil Rights and antiwar leader was in Memphis to assist 1,300 African American sanitation workers demanding union recognition and collective bargaining rights through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). SCLC was seeking a convergence between the struggle to end racism and poverty with the Antiwar Movement surrounding the efforts to end U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

This history is important today in 2020 in light of the current war drive on the part of U.S. President Donald Trump as he stokes the flames of military provocations against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the government in neighboring Iraq. The targeted assassinations of Lt. Gen. Qasam Soleimani of Iran and Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) were unprovoked and designed to both intimidate the two countries they represented as well as deflect attention away from the upcoming impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.

As Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of 1965-68 developed into a major force within the world struggle for peace against imperialism, socially conscious people today must reclaim this legacy as we oppose the Trump war drive in West Asia and in other geo-political regions of the world. Moreover, learning further from this legacy, we must link the struggle against imperialist militarism with the efforts to abolish institutional racism, national oppression, economic exploitation and environmental degradation.

To paraphrase Dr. King: every bomb dropped on Vietnam also explodes in the cities and rural areas of the U.S. In 2020, we acknowledge that the wars of aggression and exploitation waged by the Pentagon in West Asia, Africa and Latin America negatively impacts the living standards of working and oppressed people inside this country. With a Pentagon and Homeland Security budget well over $1 Trillion annually, it is no surprise that cities such as Detroit remain mired in poverty, national oppression, environmental racism and economic underdevelopment.

MLK Day Detroit Continues the Actual Legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement

This year represents the 17th Annual Detroit MLK Day Rally, March, Community Meal and Cultural Program. The event was founded by the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) in January 2004.

By 2005, a broader MLK Planning Committee was established which has been charged with organizing the event ever since. Veteran Detroit activist Dorothy Dewberry Aldridge chairs the Committee providing the tried and tested leadership needed to ensure the success of the event each year.

The origins of the manifestation began during the initial months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003-2004 when former President George W. Bush, Jr. engaged in the blanket bombing and massive invasion of this ancient nation under the false premise of searching for “weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).” The only WMDs relevant to the Iraq war were those utilized by the Pentagon which spread further destruction, death and displacement among the Iraqi people and tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

Detroit MLK Day Rally during January 2012
Detroit MLK Day Rally during January 2012. | Photo: Detroit MLK Day Committee

It has been seventeen years since the illegal invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and Pentagon troops along with intelligence operatives.  Today thousands of military personnel and “private contractors” still remain inside the country. Only a few weeks ago thousands of Iraqis stormed the American embassy demanding that they leave immediately. The Iraq parliament voted overwhelmingly on a motion calling for the withdrawal of all Pentagon and other hostile forces from the country.

In Detroit and across the U.S., the MLK holiday should be a focal point for antiwar sentiment and rallying. People must adhere to the actual history of Dr. King and not the fabricated corporate media façade which attempts to extract his contributions from the broader mass movement in which he was such an integral part.

Detroit MLK Day March 2014
More than 600 supporters set out on the march through downtown Detroit during the 11th annual Rally and March to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. | Photo: James Fassinger

Sadly enough, some 52 years since his assassination, the struggle continues against war, poverty and racism. Nonetheless, we will meet these challenges of racist violence and imperialist war with the same enthusiasm and vigor as our ancestors from previous decades and centuries.

Our keynote speaker for the 17th Annual commemoration is Dr. Luis Barrios, President of the Board of Directors of the Inter-religious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) based in New York City. IFCO has been a longtime institution fighting for civil rights, empowerment, solidarity with Cuba, Latin America as a whole, Palestine, African liberation movements and progressive governments, along with the continuing demand for African American reparations and self-determination.

Going forward in this year of 2020, the MLK Day Committee is encouraging all participants to join us and affiliated organizations in fighting to realize the ideals and objectives of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

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