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Ex-Speechwriter, Confidante Dr. Vincent Harding on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Courageous — and Overlooked — Antiwar and Economic Justice Activism

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In the fortieth year since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, we speak to Dr. King’s close associate and former speechwriter, Dr. Vincent Harding. Dr. Harding drafted King’s historic April 1967 antiwar speech “Beyond Vietnam.” He is the author of many books including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 04, 2008Democracy Now! Special: Martin Luther King’s Life and Legacy 40 Years After His Assassination
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: February is Black History Month. Even though it’s extended by one day because 2008 is a leap year, this is what legendary comedian Dick Gregory said about it when he spoke at Democracy Now!’s twelfth anniversary gala last week.

    DICK GREGORY: This is Black Month. It used to be called Negro History Week, for you young folks. We’ve gone from a week to a month. Well, you know it, if you’re going to give us a month, it’d be the month of February with all them days missing. I mean, I didn’t expect no thirty-one days, but damn!

JUAN GONZALEZ: This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just thirty-nine years old. A year to the day before he was murdered, King delivered his historic antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church. It became known as “Beyond Vietnam.”

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Time magazine later called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” and the Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King’s landmark address was drafted by his friend and colleague, Dr. Vincent Harding. Today, four decades later, Dr. Harding joins us for a look back at Dr. King’s life and significance. Dr. Harding was a close associate of Martin Luther King and his former speechwriter. He is a Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, author of many books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, which just has been reissued. Dr. Harding was also the first director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Atlanta.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about this speech. Talk about working with Dr. King on this speech. This is a very key moment in 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated, that he delivered it at Riverside Church. In your book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Here, you say that what was happening to Dr. King in the last years of his life, people pay very little attention to, the transformation that even he was undergoing.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think, Amy, that there is something that is very difficult for us to deal with concerning those last years. Martin mentions it in the speech at Riverside, in which he is calling upon the nation to become a more mature nation, to move from becoming a teenage bully nation to becoming a nation that works with other nations, cares about other nations and tries in as many ways as possible to open up the world for itself and for those who are its neighbors and fellow inhabitants of the planet. And I think that we are still being called to that kind of maturity as a nation. And I think that is part of the reason why we have such difficulty with listening to, paying attention to Martin King in his last years, especially the years after the “I Have a Dream” iconic kind of speech that was left with us.

I suspect that one of the reasons why we’re having a hard time dealing with the Martin Luther King of the last three to five years is that this King was coming to terms with the explosions that were going on all over this country wherever black people lived in those days. We’re having difficulty because this King was saying to himself and to the people all around him, to use his words, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor.” In a time like ours, where even our best presidential candidates are stumbling over themselves to identify with the middle class and the needs of the middle class, which is wonderful, marvelous, necessary, but at a time when we seem to have forgotten that we are still the richest nation in the world with a major population of very poor people, Martin King is hard to hear, because he did not forget the poor people. Indeed, the further he went into his life, the more deeply he entered into the experiences of the poor and chose to identify with those experiences in such a way that eventually he was saying, “I must help to organize the poor so that they do not have to live this life consistently in our nation.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dr. Harding, I’d like to ask you about the Vietnam speech, in particular, because there he was actually taking a stand on an international issue and what the role of our country was throughout the rest of the world, especially in the third world or the neocolonial world. Was there much debate among — within his circle of advisers? And what did you sense, as you were crafting this speech, about the conflicts that he might be having as to whether he should take that stand, because obviously he incurred enormous wrath from the commercial media and from other political — other supporters of his afterward?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Juan, there was a great deal of struggle within the community around Martin about the speech — even more than about the speech, about what position King should take in relationship to what our country was doing in Vietnam and what our country seemed intending to do all over the world.

But it’s important to recognize that King saw these issues not simply as what we call foreign policy issues. King was most deeply a pastor, and King saw these issues in terms of what they were doing to the poorest, weakest, most vulnerable people in this country, as well as what they were doing to the poor of other countries, particularly, in this case, Vietnam. So King did not see himself as separating his attention from this country and turning it overseas. King saw the natural connection between what was happening to the poor in the USA, why young men and women were rising up in anger, frustration, desperation, saw that action as deeply related to the attention that the country was paying to the devastation it was doing in Vietnam. And so, King was actually trying to bring the country together to sense the relationship between its sickness at home to the sickness of its policy overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harding, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to you. We want to talk about your role in that address and also the response of Time magazine saying the speech was “demagogic slander that sounded like a script [for] Radio Hanoi,” the Washington Post declaring King “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” We’re talking to Dr. Vincent Harding. His book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, has just been reissued. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in Denver at Rocky Mountain PBS is Vincent Harding, former speechwriter and associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at the Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Your role in writing this groundbreaking speech that Dr. King delivered April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated, at Riverside Church in New York, Dr. Harding?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I should call attention to the fact, Amy, that Martin and I were friends for the last ten years of his life. I met him first in 1958, and over that period of time, we knew each other, worked together, lived very close to each other, and our families were in constant communication with each other. It’s important for me to say that I was not simply not a speechwriter for King; I was a friend of Martin King’s.

And Martin wanted to find a way in which he could make the kind of heartfelt statement about Vietnam and attach it to what was going on in the USA in a setting that he would feel comfortable with and that he would feel had a deep, spiritual ground to it. When the opportunity came for him to be able to do this at Riverside for the organization, clergy and laypeople concerned about Vietnam, Martin thought that that was a great opportunity. He wanted that to be the opportunity for his major statement on Vietnam.

But Martin was, at the same moment, traveling thousands of miles every month, trying to organize people, trying to raise money, trying to call the attention of the nation to the agonies that it was causing at home and abroad. And he knew that he didn’t have the time to work on the speech in the way that he would have liked to. He also knew that he and I understood each other, recognized that we were very close to each other on issues having to do with Vietnam, with war and peace, and with the dangers of America becoming an imperialist power in the world. And so he asked me if I would do a draft of the speech, because he knew that I would not be putting words into his mouth. I would simply be speaking as my friend would want to speak, and that was the way that I went about the task that he asked me to do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things I was struck by in your book, The Inconvenient Hero, is how you focused on not only the work that he did obviously in the South, which has gotten most of the attention, and the Vietnam speech, but you also talk about what happened when he came north, when he went beyond just Selma and voting rights and problems in the South, but he began to raise the issue of civil rights in Chicago, and the kind of reception that he got there and how that has — because, obviously, that led to the Poor People’s Campaign, as well, but how the nation reacted to him taking the civil rights movement north.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Juan, I would like to suggest that he was doing more than taking the civil rights movement north. If you look at the Vietnam speech, you will notice that Martin calls attention to the motto that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference developed when it began back in 1957, when it was grounded in the South. What they said was — and this was before I met him — the motto was “We have come, not just to work for civil rights in the South, but we have come to redeem the soul of America.” This was the larger setting in which he saw himself, in which many people who were involved in the movement saw ourselves, that we were working for the transformation of America, and there was no way to do that without paying attention to what was going on in the Northern cities, as well as in the Southern plantations.

And so, King was simply acting out of that larger vision that had always been his, in spite of the fact that many people wanted to keep him pushed into the South, where they felt much more comfortable, where they felt that they could look upon themselves as being so much better than those Southern people. But Martin reminded us, as Malcolm reminded us, that the Southern attitude towards the weak, towards the poor, towards the disadvantaged, is an attitude that it is not confined to the South. And that was why Martin felt it very imperative that the move into the Northern communities, because he was especially concerned about those young people of the North and what their life was turning out to be for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Vincent Harding, I was reading a commentary of Mumia Abu-Jamal last night on Dr. King, and he quoted the late David Halberstam, who said about Dr. King, “King has decided to represent the ghettos. He will work in them and speak for them, but their voice,” he said, “their voice is harsh and alienated. If King is to speak for them truly, then his voice must reflect theirs. It, too, must be alienated, and it is likely to be increasingly at odds with American society.” Do you share that view of David Halberstam?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think Halberstam was very, very much on the point there, Amy. I think that it is impossible to stand with the poor, to speak on behalf of the poor, without getting the kind of responses that people gave to Martin’s speech. He became a voice that was considered to be an alienated, out-of-his-arena kind of speech. And this was only natural in light of the commitment that he made. When you decide that you must go and stand and work with garbage workers, even though you have a Ph.D. in philosophical theology, it is only natural that many people who are accustomed to hanging out with Ph.D.’s in philosophical theology will say that you are crazy for hanging around with garbage workers. But Martin had a magnificent craziness about him that made him very uncomfortable for some people to understand and to live with.

But, Amy, what I want to remember is not simply what Time magazine said or what the Washington Post said, but what I want to remember is what Nina was remembering in her song, “The King of Love is Dead, What Should We Do Now?” What I also want to remember is that great Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, just about ten days before Martin was assassinated, Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way, and we must all engage with him in his way, because,” Heschel said, “the whole future of America depends upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” I believe that. And I think that that is part of the reason why so many people were so uncomfortable, because they knew that he was calling us to a way that was very difficult, a way beyond racism, a way beyond materialism and a way beyond militarism. And those are not easy ways to go. That is why I started out by saying King was asking us to be a mature people, not a juvenile people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dr. Harding, I’d like to ask you, when he began those marches in the South — I mean, in the North, in Chicago, the Cicero marches, was he shocked or surprised by the enormous hatred and bigotry that was unleashed against him and against the movement, because obviously, after his death, you could almost chart the rise of the conservative movement and the racist views in the country after 196 and the enormous rise of conservatism in general in the country?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I don’t know if shock or surprise was the key emotion, Juan. I know that he was deeply saddened to experience what he called a more hateful kind of response than he had found any place in the Deep South. King was a person of deep compassion, and he understood that that kind of violent anger covered something that was deep within the heart and soul of the people that he was working to change. And when he saw that, he realized, as he often said, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got also a very long way to go. And he was willing to live in that tension of recognizing that the movement had made magnificent differences in the country, but that the country was still going to be resistant to the call to give up racism, to give up materialism, to give up militarism.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Vincent Harding, we want to thank you very much for joining us. Dr. Harding is joining us form Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver. His book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, has just been reissued by Orbis Books.

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