On "Meet the Press," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about his opposition to the war in Vietnam, explains why he will not support a candidate for President, and notes that despite the riots that are roiling American cities, he refuses to allow himself "to fall into the dark chambers of pessimism."
Meet The Press: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Urges People to Oppose the War in Vietnam
MR. NEWMAN: Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose annual convention begins tomorrow. Dr. King's latest book, “Where Do We Go from Here?” has just been published. We will have the first questions now from Lawrence E. Spivak, permanent member of the MEET THE PRESS panel.
MR. SPIVAK: Dr. King, several months ago you said that if the war in Vietnam is escalated it may be necessary to engage in civil disobedience. What did you mean by that?
DR. KING: I meant that if the war continued and if it was escalated, if it continued to pervade the life of our nation in terms of poisoning much of its soul, it would be necessary for thousands of people who found that war abominable to engage in acts that would arouse the conscience of the nation. Many young men have already made it crystal clear that they are opposed to the war, and it may be necessary for these young men, if this war continues, to engage in a massive campaign of conscientious objection. Also, it may be necessary for clergymen to go on record denying their draft-exemption status and file as conscientious objectors, so that it will be made clear that this war is destroying so much of what we hold dear in this nation.
MR. SPIVAK: Dr. King, the war has been escalated, and certainly the war is continuing. Are you planning to advocate civil disobedience?
DR. KING: I won't say at this time. I am going to be discussing these matters in our convention this week. I want to discuss it with our board. I want to discuss it with others that I have been working with on the peace issue, but I must say that there is growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. I have seen it on the grassroots level all over this country, and I believe as a result of this growing opposition we will be able to get-massive protests going if the war doesn't end.
MR. SPIVAK: Dr. King, to date the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has taken no formal position on Vietnam, although individual members like you have taken positions. Do you expect that the convention will take a position? Are you going to urge a position?
DR. KING: I could clear that up. We have consistently taken a position against the war. The board, in its last meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, took a very strong stand against the war and made it clear that the war in Vietnam was playing havoc with our domestic destinies and, as a result of this, it was necessary to strongly oppose it. We also opposed it in our last two conventions, and I am sure that in this particular convention the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will take an even stronger stand against the war.
MR. SPIVAK: Isn't it true that you have tried in your convention to keep separate functions of your organization on civil rights and although you have protested the war, you really have taken no formal position either of civil disobedience or anything else at your convention? Do you plan to take that up at the convention?
DR. KING: We have made it clear that SCLC is not a peace organization. It is a civil rights organization, and there can be no mechanical merger of the peace movement and the civil rights movement if for no other reason than that we don't have the energies or the resources to bring such a merger into being. But we have also made it clear that from a content point of view, the two issues, inextricably bound together, are together in the sense that there can ultimately be no justice without peace and no peace without justice. I think we’ll continue to bring this point out, making it clear that these two issues are related in the sense that from a content point of view one has to touch the other.
SPIVAK: But, Dr. King, at your convention in August of 1965 your delegates adopted a resolution which empowered you to throw – and these are the words – “the full resources of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference into efforts to end the war in Vietnam.” You have not done that to date. Do you expect that your conference will pass a resolution to do that?
DR. KING: Well, I can't say this at this time. I don't know the sentiment of the delegates.
MR. SPIVAK: Will you, yourself, urge it?
DR. KING: I will continue to urge members of the organization and all of our affiliates to take a strong stand against the war in Vietnam. I still feel that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the organization to become a peace organization. I think we have too many concerns in the civil rights area that will take all of the energies and resources that we can muster, so I will not necessarily urge that SCLC become a peace organization but that individual members and affiliates will be strongly engaged through already-existing peace organizations and peace activity.
MR. JOHNSON: Dr. King, to go back to the question of civil disobedience, some of your strongest critics have charged that you yourself are responsible for part of the urban violence that afflicts us recently in the riots, in that by advocating civil disobedience the logical and inevitable effect of that is civil disorder, that people who have no respect for law and authority then take things into their own hands. How do you answer such charges?
DR. KING: I answer it by saying it is a totally absurd charge. I have never advocated anarchy, I have never advocated lawlessness, I have never advocated violence, I have never advocated arson, I have never advocated sniping or looting. I have only said, and I still believe this, that if one finds a law unjust, then he has a moral responsibility to take a stand against that law, even if it means breaking that law. But I have also gone on to say that he must break that law openly, he must not seek to defy the law, he must not seek to annihilate the law in the same sense that you would find the Klan doing, but he must do it openly and cheerfully and in the right spirit. It is still my conviction that he who breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty for breaking it is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law. So anyone who says that what we have done in the civil rights movement in the South, for instance, created an atmosphere for riots is misreading history and certainly dishonestly interpreting everything that we have done.
MR. JOHNSON: On the question of nonviolence, Dr. King, do you find a widening division between the Negroes, the groups themselves in our cities on this question of whether to proceed in a nonviolent manner, as you have indicated, or as those who are advocating frankly, violence in our country?
DR. KING: There is no doubt that some Negroes are disenchanted with nonviolence. They feel that we haven't made enough progress in general and through nonviolence, and as a result of this they have started talking more in terms of violence. I still believe, however, that the vast majority of Negroes feel that nonviolence is the best strategy, the best tactic to use in this moment of social transition. After all, less than one percent of the Negroes of our country have engaged in riots. More than 99 percent of the Negroes have remained nonviolent tactically; they haven't thrown Molotov cocktails, This reveals that most Negroes are still feeling that nonviolence is probably the best strategy, not saying that they are committed to It as a way of life.
MR. BOOKER: Dr. King, many people regard LBJ as a leader of the civil rights movement. Do you agree that the President dominates the civil rights scene?
DR. KING: I don't think that we could say that the President is the leader of the civil rights movement. The President should always respond to the legitimate and just aspirations of the Negro community and, certainly, of the demands of Negro leaders
and Negro people generally, but the leaders of the civil rights movement are Negroes themselves. I think it should be this way and it should always remain this way.
MR. BOOKER: Even though you haven't seen eye to eye with President Johnson on the Vietnam war, you still haven't had too much contact with the White House. Have you had any recent contact with the President? Have you been invited to the White House?
DR. KING: I haven't had too much recent contact with the President. I did make a proposal concerning a massive work program, a kind of massive WPA program, to get everybody in this country who is able to work on a job, and I think it is possible to
do that. I presented this proposal to the President, and his assistant contacted me concerning it and suggested that the President was thinking about this and would also be talking with Secretary Wirtz about it, but I haven't had any direct contact with the
MR. WESTFELD: Dr. King, a moment ago you said that you were not in favor of the SCLC merging with any sort of peace force mechanically because this would sort of blur your responsibilities and your resources. When you urge your members to do this as individuals, aren't you in effect doing the same thing; you are weakening the civil rights movement?
DR. KING: No I don't think we are weakening the civil rights movement at all. I think we are strengthening the civil rights movement in the sense that we are taking a stand against a war that is terribly damaging the civil rights movement. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that this war has diverted attention from civil rights, it has taken resources from our cities and civil rights that we sorely need at this time. The tragedy is that we are today engaged in two wars and we are losing both. We are losing the war against poverty here at home; we are losing the war in Vietnam morally and politically. I think we are losing this war at home precisely because of the energies, the resources, the money and all of the other things that we are putting in that tragic, unjust, evil, brutal, senseless war in Vietnam.
MR. WESTFELD: As to this issue of civil disorder and violence and peace-nonviolence, you just said that only one percent of the Negroes in the country were engaged in sort of violent acts. You said that 99 percent were nonviolent. Isn't it a fact that most of that 99 percent, in a sense, tolerated, tacitly approved the violence of the others?
DR. KING: I am not saying that there are not some Negroes who are not engaging in dots who don't get some kind of vicarious satisfaction out of it. I am sure psychologically from a psychological point of view that is true. But I tend to feel that most Negroes still believe that the best approach, the best way to really bring about the social changes that we are seeking will be through the nonviolent approach. I think recent polls have revealed this, and I think these polls are probably true.
MR. SPIVAK: Dr. King, an effort I know has been made to get you to run for President on a peace ticket, and I believe you have refused. Are there any circumstances at all under which you might accept such a nomination?
DR. KING: I still hold the view that under no circumstance would I accept this kind of nomination, because I don't think this is my role. I still reel that I must continue to work passionately and unrelentingly to deal with the problems of racial injustice that still pervade our nation and also to mobilize opposition to the war in Vietnam, which I think is doing so much damage to everything that we are seeking to do.
MR. SPIVAK: Do you plan to ask your convention to take a position on President Johnson if he runs in '68, to be for him or against him?
DR. KING: No, actually we do not endorse candidates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are a nonpartisan organization, and we have followed a consistent policy of not endorsing candidates, so we will not take a position on endorsing or rejecting the President's candidacy in 1968 in the SCLC convention. Individuals in our organization are perfectly free to endorse candidates if they so desire.
MR. SPIVAK: There were some stories that you might change that situation at this present conference, that you might take a position in partisan politics and endorse a candidate. I take it you say those stories are false?
DR. KING: Yes, those stories are false. We have no plans to endorse a candidate. We plan to follow the same position that we followed as an organization on the question of endorsing candidates.
MR. SPIVAK: What will your own position be on President Johnson?
DR. KING: Again, I don't endorse candidates either. I have my private feelings and I vote as any other citizen. I cannot say at this time what will happen in 1968. I would simply say that no candidate or no political party has the Negro vote in his or its vest pocket. It is going to depend on the candidate that produces the programs that candidate that would really take a stand forthrightly and aggressively on the question of racial injustice and the problems in our cities, and I think also, the candidate who seeks to bring a speedy end to the war in Vietnam.
MR. JOHNSON: Right now though, Dr. King, you are opposed to the way the President is handling his policies in regard to Vietnam, isn't that correct?
DR. KING: There is no doubt about that. I have made that very clear.
MR. JOHNSON: Is there anyone on the national scene whose views you do look toward for leadership in this issue of Vietnam, speaking politically?
DR. KING: I think you have a number of senators and congressmen and even local political leaders who have taken a strong stand against the war in Vietnam, and certainly we welcome those, those of us who are opposed to the war. I will not specify any particular individual, because we have a number of doves in the senate, for instance, and also in the House.
MR. JOHNSON: But you are not going to commit yourself here as to which one you favor over another, I take it?
DR. KING: No.
MR. JOHNSON: Let me ask you another question in regard to – to get off Vietnam for a moment, one thing I’d like to know, Dr. King, is, how do you reach the people in the ghettoes that we have been talking about, the one percent, those who are committing violence and are the rioters themselves? How do you reach those people? Apparently you haven't been able to yet; apparently no one has been able to.
DR. KING: It is not simply a reaching out through pronouncements and through preaching even. Certainly I will continue to take a stand against riots, because I think they are socially destructive and self-defeating. I think they do more damage to the Negro community and to Negroes than anybody else, so I will continue to take a stand verbally against riots and to preach against them. On the other hand, I think we must see that social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. As long as these intolerable conditions of poverty, terrible housing conditions and the syndrome of deprivation surrounding slumism, as long as these things exist, we have the dangerous possibility of people becoming so angry, so depressed and so caught up in despair that they will engage in this kind of misguided activity. And I think the way to reach them is to get them jobs, is to give them a new sense of hope, a new sense of dignity, a new sense of self-respect as a result of a good solid job, as a result of a decent sanitary home in which to live and as a result of a good school, with quality and everything else, that their children can attend.
MR. BOOKER: Dr. King, do you believe that the American racial problem can be solved?
DR. KING: Yes, I do. I refuse to give up. I refuse to despair in this moment. I refuse to allow myself to fall into the dark chambers of pessimism, because I think in any social revolution the one thing that keeps it going is hope, and when hope dies somehow the revolution degenerates into a kind of nihilistic philosophy which says you must engage in disruption for disruption's sake. I refuse to believe that, however difficult it is, I believe that the forces of good will, white and. black, in this country can work together to bring about a resolution of this problem. We have the resources to do it. At present we don't have the will, but certainly the Negroes and the decent committed whites – maybe they are in a minority now, but they are there – must work together to so arouse the conscience of this nation and at the same time to so articulate the issue through direct action and powerful action programs, that our demands can no longer be eluded by the government or by Congress or all of the forces in power.
MR. BOOKER: How long will it take at the present rate of progress?
DR. KING: I can't say that in terms of the number of years. I think we are still making progress. What we must see is that we made significant progress in the South in our struggle against legal segregation, and we profoundly altered the edifice of segregation in the South. Now we have got to make the movement real and powerful and dynamic in the northern ghettos because the gains that we made in the south, legislatively and judicially, did very little to penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation in the north. What we must do now is to escalate non-violence in our large areas of the north, because I think a powerful nonviolent movement can be just as effective in the north as in the south, and I think we can do it, we can disrupt things if necessary, militantly and non-violently, without destroying life and property.
MR. WESTFELD: Dr. King, you just mentioned that you are hopeful about a solution, and I am wondering what your reaction is to the first report of the President's Commission on Civil Disorder. It dealt almost entirely with, sort of, the make-up of
the National Guard, its leadership and its riot training, and seemed to be much more concerned with the control of riots than getting at the causes.
MR. NEWMAN: We have about three minutes left.
DR. KING: I think it would be tragic indeed if this commission only deals with the make-up of the riots, just decides to investigate the riots and all of that. This commission should have the responsibility of making positive recommendations concerning the way to get rid of the conditions that create the riots. We have had too many commissions in the past, and so often commissions get bogged down in the paralysis of analysis. We know what causes riots and we know what can cure riots. We need an agency now that can act. This is a national emergency. Something needs to be done now, and we don't need to wait months and months from now to do it, because the longer we wait, the more we intensify the bitterness and exacerbate the tensions in our nation.
MR. WESTFELD: If you know what causes riots and how to cure them, why do you need this commission? Isn't this just sort of a political charade?
DR. KING: I would be the first to say that I don't necessarily see the need for a commission at this point. When we had a so-called “railroad crisis” some weeks ago, a commission wasn't appointed to make a three or four months study. The President and the Congress met this emergency – what they considered an emergency – immediately. I submit that the emergency that we face in race relations, in our cities today, is much greater than the emergency faced with the railroad strike coming into being, and I think it is necessary to come out with immediate programs that will deal with this thing forthrightly and positively and concretely.
MR. NEWMAN: We have one minute, gentlemen.
MR. SPIVAK: Dr. King, you have told us what the white man and the government can do about this very serious situation. What do you think the Negro himself can do? You have been able to come out of poverty; you have been able to get a good education, as have hundreds of thousands of Negroes. Why do some succeed and not others?
DR. KING: Some succeed and not others because the system is stacked against the Negro. It is all right to say to people “Lift yourself by your own bootstraps,” but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. The fact is that millions of Negroes have been left bootless as a result of poverty, as a result of illiteracy caused by inadequate education and a real lack of educational opportunities and as a result of centuries of neglect and hurt. I think the government and everybody must see that the Negro can't do this job by himself.
MR. NEWMAN: I am sorry to interrupt, Dr. King, but our time is up. Thank you for being with us today on MEET THE PRESS.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. A Baptist minister and civil rights activist, he had an enormous impact on race relations in the United States. Through his activism, he played a key role in ending the segregation of African-American citizens in the South and the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King was assassinated in April 1968 and continues to be remembered as one of the greatest African-American leaders in history.