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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement


"A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."
—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Related Links:

  • Access a timeline, maps, profiles, and other resources on the American Experience Web site Vietnam: A Television History.
  • Explore Martin Luther King's life on the American Experience Web site Citizen King.
  • Learn about the Vietnam War and anti-war protests — on the American Experience Web site Two Days in October.

By 1967, the U.S. is deeply entrenched in the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King, who has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, draws criticism by publicly speaking against the war. He delivers a high-profile speech at New York's Riverside Church on April 4. King makes a connection between the nation's expensive and destructive efforts in Southeast Asia and the woefully under-funded war on poverty in America. "The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam," he says, "making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home."

King's stance creates a rift with President Lyndon Johnson. The FBI is already monitoring King and seeking ways to discredit him, particularly by linking him with Communists. Although King's views will affect his public image, and cause donations to the SCLC to drop sharply, the tide is turning. By mid-1968, Americans have been stunned by Vietcong military opposition during the Tet offensive, and grown weary of the steady stream of body bags coming home. Establishment newscaster Walter Cronkite is asking whether the war is winnable. The presidential campaign of 1968 becomes a referendum on the war. President Johnson drops the bombshell that he will not seek re-election, and Democratic candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy vie for the nomination with anti-war platforms.


Other Events: Late 1968

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles.

The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Otis Redding and Herb Alpert all appear on record charts.

"The Mod Squad," a cop show featuring an interracial team of men and women, debuts on television.

At the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, American track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in the Black Power salute as "The Star Spangled Banner" plays.

Yale College admits women for the first time.

The crew of Apollo 8 racks up impressive firsts: they break Earth's orbit, view all of planet Earth from afar, and see the dark side of the moon.


The New York Times, April 7, 1967

Editorial: Dr. King's Error

In recent speeches and statements the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has linked his personal opposition to the war in Vietnam with the cause of Negro equality in the United States. The war, he argues, should be stopped not only because it is a futile war waged for the wrong ends but also because it is a barrier to social progress in this country and therefore prevents Negroes from achieving their just place in American life.

This is a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both. The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests; the political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes...

...Dr. King can only antagonize opinion in this country instead of winning recruits to the peace movement by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis testing "new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe." The facts are harsh but they do not justify such slander. Furthermore, it is possible to disagree with many aspects of United States policy in Vietnam without whitewashing Hanoi...

...There are no simple or easy answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country...

The New York Times, April 14, 1967

Letter to the Editor: Dr. King's Peace Stand Supported

By commenting as it did in the editorial, "Dr. King's Error" (April 7) The Times has, in my estimation, committed an error it will want later to rectify and done and unfortunate disservice to a great American and a great Christian...

...The reason Dr. King says "the Great Society has been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam" is not because he contests your assertion that "the nation could afford to make more funds available to combat poverty even while the war in Vietnam continues." It is rather because he knows that Congress will not make more funds available so long as this war continues. Dr. King uses the old Biblical saying: "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," and maintains that the heart of Congress and of the Administration is in the war...

John P. C. Matthews
Princeton, N.J., April 8, 1967

Letter to the Editor: Civil Rights and War

...Our mistreatment of Negroes and our lawlessness in Vietnam are both manifestations of the same self-deceptive kinds of thinking. And they require similar solutions.

For three hundred years white Americans have abused Negroes, scorned them for the characteristics which resulted from the abuse, accused them of aggression when they protested and used the protest as an excuse for further oppression.

For thirteen years the United States Government has been trying to impose its domination on South Vietnam, increasing the fury of its attack after each failure and blaming the aggression on its Communist opponents...

Benjamin Spock
Cleveland, April 10, 1967

The Washington Post, April 6, 1967

Editorial: A Tragedy

Dr. Martin Luther King's Vietnam speech was not a sober and responsible comment on the war but a reflection of his disappointment at the slow progress of civil rights and the war on poverty.

It was filled with bitter and damaging allegations and inferences that he did not and could not document. He flatly charged the Government with sending Negroes to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. But Negro troops constitute 11 percent of the enlisted personnel in Vietnam (10.5 percent of the population was Negro in 1960). Negro casualties are higher than this (22.5 percent of killed in action) because of higher Negro enlistment for elite corps and higher rate of Negro re-enlistment. No doubt these figures reflect in part the fact that civilian employment opportunities are not as great for the Negro. But they also reflect, in part, the zeal and courage of Negro soldiers. And they reflect the fact that in this war the Negro in uniform is not limited to work battalions...

The Washington Post, April 19, 1967

Letter to the Editor: King Defended

Your editorial attack April 6 upon Martin Luther King following his Vietnam speech was not in the high tradition of sensitive judgment normally associated with your newspaper. My own respect for Dr. King was considerably increased by a careful reading of the entire text of the speech itself. I suspect it may come to be regarded as one of his greatest. If you doubt that other readers would react similarly, you might test this by printing the entire text...

...the really disturbing thing about your editorial is your failure to grasp the main themes of the speech: the sheer immensity of human suffering in Vietnam directly resulting from our enormous firepower, the social and cultural dislocations which our presence has caused, our growing alienation from the Vietnamese and from people of other lands around the world...

...I think you have misjudged your man in suggesting that Dr. King has "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people." Dr. King is a Christian minister, with commitments transcending any cause, any country, and any people. He speaks to our conscience again in this troubled time, not because he is a civil rights leader, but because his cause is the true cause of mankind.

Philip Wogaman
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington

Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1967

Guest Editorial: Martin Luther King Crosses the Line
([from the] Cincinnati Enquirer)

The unctuous Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been something of a hindrance to the civil rights movement since he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Since the award, he has specialized in speaking in Olympian tones, rather than addressing himself to the practicalities of the civil rights movement.

However, he quite definitely crossed over the line when he lent himself and his prestige to an "anti-Vietnam War" rally in Chicago.

"This war," he said sonorously, "is a blasphemy against all that America stands for.

"We are arrogant in not allowing young nations to go thru the same growing pains of turbulence and revolution that characterized our history. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach, and preach until the very foundations of our nation are shaken..."

...What arrant nonsense it is for Mr. King to say: "We are arrogant in no allowing young nations to go thru the same growing pains of turbulence and revolution that characterized our history."

Does he really equate a communist take-over with "growing pains"? Is being a victim of aggression something we should "allow young nations" to experience, as if it were part of a process of maturity?

Communists took part in some early phases of the civil rights movement, certainly not to help the Negro but to create as much dissension as possible, and the promises they made were about as valid as those made by Germany in World War I when it sought to enlist Mexican support by promising Mexico the southwestern part of the United States.


Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
Songwriter: Pete Seeger
Performed by: Pete Seeger
Listen to the Music

Toward the end of the 1960s, as the anti-war movement gained momentum, anti-war songs became as popular among activists as freedom songs.

Folk singer Pete Seeger, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement, also campaigned against the Vietnam War. He wrote "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" about a true incident in 1943 that served as an allegory for American intervention in southeast Asia. The first time he tried to sing the song on national television, he was censored; he sang it on the Smothers Brothers show the following year.

Commercial black music of the late Sixties reflected disillusionment with the Vietnam War as well. Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" (1971) and Jimi Hendrix's version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (1968) both alluded to the American military action.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.


Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement
Duration: 2:35 min
Watch the Video

This group of clips includes newsreel footage of anti-war demonstrations.

The first clips are from New York and show people marching and draft cards being burnt, followed by images of counter-demonstrators and Martin Luther King leading protestors to the United Nations.

Next is footage of marchers at a San Francisco rally, followed by images of a Los Angeles demonstration at which protesters are shown clashing with police.

Footage courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.


Examples of Anti-Vietnam Activism, 1967-1969

  1. New York, New York
    April 1967
    Martin Luther King speaks out against the war at Riverside Church.
  2. Oakland, California
    October 1967
    During a nationwide Stop the Draft Week protest, thousands of anti-war protesters clash with police at the Oakland Army Induction Center.
  3. Madison, Wisconsin
    October 1967
    A protest by students opposed to on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm, ends in violence.
  4. Arlington, Virginia
    October 1967
    As many as 100,000 marchers converge on the Pentagon to protest the war. Norman Mailer will later describe the scene in his book, The Armies of the Night.
  5. Chicago, Illinois
    August 1968
    Anti-war protesters assemble and clash violently with police at the Democratic National Convention.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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