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As Obama Visits Afghanistan, Tavis Smiley on Rev. Martin Luther King and His Opposition to the Vietnam War

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As the President renews his commitment to expand the American military presence in Afghanistan, we turn to a man he is sometimes compared to: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A new special on PBS from TV host and author Tavis Smiley delves into this comparison and looks at a speech that has a particular resonance today with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Dr. King’s famous antiwar speech of April 4, 1967 titled “Beyond Vietnam.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama made a very brief unannounced visit to Afghanistan Sunday night. It was his first trip as president to the war zone he’s expanded and remade over the past year. In his six-hour visit, he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his aides in Kabul and addressed a crowd of US soldiers at Bagram Air Base before flying out of the country before daybreak.

President Obama told US troops, quote, “We did not choose this war.” He added, quote, “If I thought for a minute that America’s vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.”

Well, as the President renews his commitment to expand the US military presence in Afghanistan, we turn to a man he’s sometimes compared to: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A new special on PBS from TV host and author Tavis Smiley delves into this comparison and looks at a speech that has a particular resonance today with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. King’s famous antiwar speech of April 4th, 1967 was called “Beyond Vietnam.”

Well, here’s an excerpt of the upcoming PBS primetime special episode of Tavis Smiley Reports. It’s called MLK: A Call to Conscience. It premiers on Wednesday night.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight, because my conscience leaves me no other choice. A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

    CLAYBORNE CARSON: Martin Luther King knew, when he gave that speech, that it would set off a firestorm.

    SUSANNAH HESCHEL: It’s the speech that challenges us, and in that sense it’s his most important. That we are uncomfortable with that speech tells us something.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Well, such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, that question suggests that they do not know the world in which they live.

    VINCENT HARDING: It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet, which had been chasing him for a long time, finally caught up with him. And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Tavis Smiley’s PBS film “Beyond Vietnam” [MLK: A Call to Conscience] that will air on Wednesday night.

Tavis Smiley, joining us now from Burbank, California, welcome to Democracy Now! This is extremely powerful and relevant, as President Obama just made this surprise trip to Afghanistan. You go back to a time when another African American leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, broke ranks not only with the president that he had worked with on civil rights and voting rights, but with many in his own circles, to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, Amy, first of all, always an honor to be on your program.

The timing of this special, airing on Wednesday night, to your point, could not be more propitious, given that the President has just made this surprise visit to Afghanistan. Of course, we never know these things when we schedule these kinds of specials, what the news will bring us, but the timing, again, couldn’t be any better.

But this speech, “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence,” is given by Dr. King on April 4, 1967, literally one year to the day later he’s assassinated in Memphis, April 4, 1968. But to your point, it is the speech that caused him the greatest deal of controversy and consternation, quite frankly. Most Americans, I think, know the “I Have a Dream” speech. Some Americans, Amy, know the “Mountaintop” speech given the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. But most Americans do not know this “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which got King, again, in a world of trouble. He comes out very clearly and talks about three things that are causing him consternation: militarism, racism and poverty. And he links all three of those things in this “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

And the speech is so — it so rankles and angers the country that 168 major newspapers the next day — 168 the following day — all did editorials denouncing him. The New York Times, the liberal New York Times, called the speech “wasteful” and “self-defeating.” The Washington Post goes on to aver that he has done himself, his country and the world, quite frankly, a disservice, and he would never be respected again — paraphrasing it, but that’s what the Washington Post says the next day. But in most major newspapers he was denounced the next day, because the night before, in the speech, he had referred to the US, Amy, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And for saying that, he gets demonized by most major newspapers; he gets disinvited, as you said earlier, by LBJ to the White House; indeed, black leaders — Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League — black leaders turned against him. And finally, over the next year of his life before he’s killed in Memphis, the last poll taken about his popularity, a Harris poll, Amy, found that almost three-quarters of the American people had turned against King. Fifty-five percent of his own people, black folk, had turned against King. The last years of his life were very, very lonely, in part because he was so adamant about the war in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, I want to go to that very place in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that he gave at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Dr. King, April 4th, 1967. A year later to the day, he would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Time Magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” But he wouldn’t stop, Tavis Smiley.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, he would not stop. And what’s fascinating, Amy — and I think this will come through Wednesday night, when the special airs on PBS — what will come through is that if you replace the words “Iraq” for “Vietnam,” “Afghanistan” for “Vietnam,” “Pakistan” for “Vietnam,” this speech is so relevant today.

There’s a powerful part of the special. We talk to so many of King’s closest aides, advisers, scholars across the country who are part of this conversation. You played the piece from Clayborne Carson a moment ago who’s in charge of the King papers. And so many in King’s circle, so many of King’s devotees were disappointed when President Obama — himself, of course, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. So you have King, the youngest ever, then and now, to receive the Peace Prize, of black men from the United States, you have Barack Obama, a young African American man, President of the United States, both now with these Nobel Peace Prizes.

And in President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, we wrestle with a particular part of that text that nobody in the mainstream media seems to have wrestled with, and that is the part in the speech — King and Obama, of course, already locked together in history, I think, as the two most iconic African Americans now, during the campaign black folk everywhere wearing T-shirts with King and Obama’s face on the T-shirt. So they’re already linked in history. But then Obama steps to the podium in Oslo and starts out with a particular part of his speech where he’s giving Dr. King his just respect. It’s impossible for, again, this second, this black man, Obama — the other black man, of course, to receive the prize, Ralph Bunche — but impossible for President Obama to give this speech, I think, in Oslo without referencing Dr. King. So he talks about King and gives him the requisite respect he deserves.

But then, in that speech, Amy, he makes a turn and talks about the fact — and I’m paraphrasing here — that he can’t be guided by King’s notion of nonviolence in today’s world. And he suggests he couldn’t do that because King didn’t know al-Qaeda. And that really — and he goes deeper than that, but he really starts to rankle some who have been — you know, who worked with and advised Dr. King. Harry Belafonte and others talk in this special about how that really pricked them, and some of them felt insulted by that, as if Dr. King did not know violence in his lifetime and as if he could not intellectually wrestle with the violence, the terrorism that we’re up against today, but most importantly, the notion that nonviolence in today’s world is irrelevant and could not make a difference. So it’s a fascinating conversation about the parallels, and yet, at the same time, the tension, on the issue of war and peace between King and Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, let’s go, in your special, your PBS special that’s airing on Wednesday night, to your colleague, our colleague, Cornel West, the professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University.

    CORNEL WEST: Here he was shouting, a voice, prophetic voice in the wilderness, and he knew the sleepwalking was increasing. What he didn’t know was that the sleepwalking would get thicker and thicker during the age of Reagan. And what he didn’t know, that there was a black man on the way to the White House in 2009, and was hoping that there would be some awakening connected to his legacy of focusing on poor people and working people and jobs and homes and studying war, no more, not because a president would be pacifist, because it upset me when I heard my dear brother Barack Obama criticize Martin on the global stage, saying that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insights were not useful for a commander-in-chief, because evil exists, as if Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t know about evil.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting terrorism. He was an anti-terrorist who was fighting Jim Crow and James Crow. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew something about evil, more so than many of us, including our beloved president. But he also knew that if you don’t break the cycle of domination and bigotry and hatred and try to exemplify some alternative, then that cycle would be reinforced in such a way that you would be a pro-war president, pro-war citizen, and not giving peace a chance.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Professor Cornel West of Princeton University. Tavis Smiley?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, Dr. West, as always, is powerful and provocative, in terms of raising unsettling questions for us to wrestle with. We go on to talk to Dr. West and others in this special, Amy, about how it is that the world can be made safe for the legacy of Dr. King when you have this tension between an African American president, who’s linked with King on the world stage, as Dr. West just suggested, if not intentionally, certainly unintentionally, diminishing King and his philosophy, that Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, of nonviolence. And so, it’s again a fascinating tension point here in the conversation.

What King was trying to get across, as you know, Amy, in that speech in ’67 at Riverside was not just that the war was wrong, but that the war was distracting us. The war in Vietnam was distracting us from the war on poverty here at home. And one could make, again — and it’s going to be fascinating for viewers to see this on Wednesday and to see, again, how similar conditions are that King was addressing in ’67 and where we are, believe it or not, in 2010. So many — so much of our resource in this country has been sent to these wars abroad, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and now to Pakistan. And those resources being sent abroad make it very, very difficult to focus in on the issue of poverty, escalating poverty, quite frankly, in this recession right here at home.

And you talk about these drones. Danny Glover got in trouble some months ago for suggesting that he didn’t see much difference between Obama’s war policy and Bush’s war policy. And people tried to castigate and demonize Danny Glover for making those comments. Well, when you look at the facts, we’re escalating our troop presence in Afghanistan. And here we should say that this is a campaign promise kept by President Obama. No surprise here. He promised to do that. But there’s some real questions here about what cost that we are doing this at and whether or not this is now a war of necessity or a war of choice. But he did promise to do this. And there were some of us who were disturbed by it then, but campaign promise kept. But in Pakistan, he has increased, as you know, the use of these US drones. And every time one of these drones goes awry, it goes askew, it doesn’t hit the intended target, it kills innocent women and children. And that turns future generations of young folk against America. So this stuff is a never-ending cycle of violence.

King came to the point, even though, as you mentioned earlier, those in his own camp, many of them, advised him not to give this speech — they said, “How can you offend President Johnson, who’s been our best friend on civil rights and human rights and voting rights? How can you do this? Martin, this is going to cause problems.” And I said earlier, black leaders turned against him. But what pulled Dr. King in to address this issue so directly and so strongly, Amy, was the children. When he saw the photos of the children being victimized by the napalm, he could no longer be silent. His conscience called him to Riverside because of the children.

So here we are now in 2010, forty-some years later, almost forty-five years later, turning future generations of children against us every time we innocently kill their mother, their father, their loved ones, their sisters, their brothers. So the parallels — I sound like a broken record here, because it’s even mind-boggling for me, having produced the piece, to just look at America then, look at America now, and really ask, on the question of war and peace, how much progress have we really made?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to your documentary, “Beyond Vietnam” [MLK: A Call to Conscience], to another clip of Professor Cornel West talking about President Obama.

    CORNEL WEST: Well, I think that they’re in very different lanes, and they have very different callings. Barack Obama presently is the brilliant, charismatic, smiling, friendly face of the American Empire. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the courageous, sacrificial, smiling, friendly face that was crushed by the American Empire. The latter is a prophet. The former is politician.

AMY GOODMAN: Strong words, Professor West calling Obama the face of empire, as we look at him addressing the troops and then meeting with President Karzai in Afghanistan, when — what many are now calling Obama’s war.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, again, back to this word, “parallels,” the parallels of what this president is doing on the issue of war and peace. And again, we could not have known that President Obama was going to touch down in Afghanistan, but the timing is on point. We hope this special is going to raise some powerful questions about US foreign policy. And again, at what cost? At what cost, number one, are these wars wars of necessity, at this point, or are they wars of choice? And what agency? What agency does the American people have in trying to redirect this president on the question of war and peace?

I want to go back to King, though, to Dr. West’s comparison of Obama and King. King understood very clearly that there was a cost, Amy, to being a truth teller. Being in — these are my words now, but being in the public square — put another way, being in the public eye — being a leader of people in America, means that you find yourself every day, I think, in a battle of truth versus power. Truth versus power. And the question is whether or not you’re going to be a truth teller or a power grabber. But if you are going to be committed to telling truth, King understood, as we must understand today, that there consequences to being a truth teller. And Martin King endured those consequences in the latter years, latter days of his life. He had to endure that.

And yet, one of the pieces that comes out in this special on Wednesday night that, again, I think will shock most Americans is that even though King had almost three-quarters, Amy, of the American people turned against him, 55 percent of his own people turned against him, one of the last calls — we lay this out in the special Wednesday night — one of the last calls, Amy, he made from Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying, as we know, in Memphis, one of the last phone calls he made was back to his church in Atlanta, Ebenezer, which he co-pastored, as you know, with his father, Daddy King, and King told his father that when he got home Sunday from Memphis, so they could type it in the Sunday morning church bulletin, King told his father that his sermon topic was going to be, had he lived, why America may go to Hell. Why America may go to Hell. He was going to tie that speech to those three points he had raised a year earlier: escalating militarism, increasing poverty and damning racism in this country.

And we think of Dr. King — Dr. West, in this special, Amy, uses this phrase that only West could use it — I call it, it’s Westian to the core — but he talks, Amy, about the Santa Clausification, the Santa Clausification of Dr. King. I’ll let him unpack that Wednesday night. What he means by that, though, is that we have tamed and defanged and manicured and deodorized Dr. King so much that we’ve reduced him to a dreamer, in many ways the same things — the same thing that’s being done to Mandela now in South Africa, as if these men, Mandela and King, were not freedom fighters who were willing to pay a cost — indeed, in Martin’s case, the price of death, for standing in his truth. But to have that kind of pushback for being a truth teller and then to tell to your daddy, your co-pastor, that on Sunday morning you’re going to preach a sermon, with all the hell you’re catching still, entitled “Why America May” — emphasize the word “may” — “Go to Hell,” speaks again to how powerful Martin’s work and witness was. And I think, as Americans, some of us have lost sight of that in the age and the era of Obama. And some of us have never really wanted to wrestle with who Martin King really was.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Tavis, something I learned from your documentary about the media at that time, aside from, in the mainstream media, the universal condemnation of Dr. King’s address, was that only — what was it? — ten minutes of this extended speech was actually filmed?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah. It’s a rare — first of all, it’s rare for King to give a speech where he basically read the entire text. And he did that because they wanted to make sure — knowing that he was going to get in some trouble, they wanted to make sure that — and Taylor Branch, in this special, explains this in detail, the great King historian of that wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, America in the King Years — Taylor Branch lays out the fact that the reason why Dr. King ended up having his dear friend Dr. Vincent Harding, who you saw and heard in a clip here earlier — his friend Vincent Harding helps to write this “Beyond Vietnam” speech, because they wanted to make sure that, in advance, newspapers across the country could get it, so that King would not be misquoted, so he would not be misunderstood, so he’d not be demonized by the media. Of course, that’s the exact opposite — as you just mentioned, the exact opposite happened. But the media comes after him, again, because they didn’t like what he had to say. But it was — it was darn near universal. But the point was, again, to get it out early enough so that he would not be misquoted, misunderstood, and yet that happens anyway. So it’s fascinating how the media at that time didn’t want to wrestle with the speech.

And again, the media had been slow to understand and to accept what he was up to, in terms of his motives and his reasons for being so central to the civil rights movement. They were slow to get that. But when it came to talking about foreign policy, they said to him very clearly, “Brother, you are out of your lane. You have no business discussing foreign policy. You are a civil rights leader. Stay over there. We have not given you permission to be addressing these issues.” So it was a serious smack-down for Dr. King. And Taylor Branch points out Wednesday night in the special that this kind of pushback, Amy, was so intense that on more than one occasion it literally brought Dr. King to tears. He was troubled by this. He didn’t stop fighting, didn’t change his point of view, but it really emotionally broke him down. And we talk about that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And tonight on C-SPAN, they are going to be playing the event that you did, the gathering at Chicago last week, a gathering of black leadership. The level of criticism you feel, Tavis Smiley, is acceptable of President Obama in the black community right now, among the black leadership?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, it’s a good question, Amy. Let me tweak it, if I might. It’s not so much about a level of criticism, as much as it is holding him accountable to doing those things that he said he would do, number one. And he’s done some of those things, to be sure. But I’ve said many times in our conversations that I don’t think great presidents are born. Great presidents are made.

If he’s going to become a transformational president, the progressive community — and I think that includes black folk, by and large — is going to have to help push him, to help usher him into his greatness. I believe there’s honor in accountability. And so, it starts not just with this notion of criticizing or critiquing him, but, number one, holding him accountable to what he said he was going to do; number two, recognizing that the black constituency is the most loyal constituency in his entire base; recognizing, number three, that while most Americans are being challenged and being — find themselves between a rock and a hard place, as it were, because of this economy, the numbers are clear: black folk in America are getting crushed.

And when there are certain black leaders, as there have been over the last month or two, who suggest trying to give the President some cover, sort of walking on eggshells, but suggesting publicly in the media that he doesn’t have to have a black agenda, that he need not uniquely address the concerns of black folk, I said, wait a minute, we need to have a “come to Jesus” meeting about this, because there are some of us who believe that disproportionate pain requires a disproportionate response. And so, a large group of African American thought leaders, opinion makers, policy makers, influencers met us around a — literally around a big round table at Chicago State just a week or so ago. Thousands of people packed into the auditorium at Chicago State for a conversation about how it is that we fashion and form and hold the President accountable to an African American agenda in this era of Obama, in this so-called post-racial America.

AMY GOODMAN: PBS host Tavis Smiley. Tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, C-SPAN will air his We Count! The Black Agenda Is the American Agenda, the gathering of black leadership he recently hosted in Chicago. On Wednesday night, PBS will air Tavis Smiley’s special MLK: A Call to Conscience.

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