Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Vincent Harding, MLK friend and scholar, about King’s “Selma to Montgomery” Speech of March 25, 1964.
Harding: Dr. King is coming at this moment in March, 1965 to the end of one of the great occasions in the movement, in his leadership, in his companionship, especially with the people of the South who had been working so hard around this issue of the right to vote and had drawn thousands of people from other parts of the country to be with them in this great pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery. To get to Montgomery alive was itself a great victory. To call the attention of the nation and the President of the nation to what was going on was a great accomplishment. That continuing refrain: “We are on the move now,” meaning we are not here to admire ourselves, to congratulate ourselves, but simply to prepare ourselves for the next stages because it immediately goes into issues of poverty, of urban decay, of homelessness, of still segregated schools. He moves on to all the issues which would become the issues right into our own century.
Ingles: Dr. Harding, as an orator, talk about how Dr. King combines a poetic lyricism with content that actually helps listeners and his audience confront their fears and overcome them at the same time.
Harding: He understood that one major role that he was called upon to play was essentially to say to people: “It is understandable if you feel some fear, but do not let the fear overcome you because we are in connections with the rightness of the universe and the spirit of justice and rightness is on our side just as we are on its side. Keep going. Do not allow understandable fears to stop us.”
Ingles: Dr. Harding, talk with me for a moment about this section in this speech where Dr. King confronts the concept of normalcy.
Harding: He is saying in a deep way to Alabama, as one example, that what you have experienced in the past must not be allowed to be your judgment of what is good and what is necessary and what is needed for your life. You must now begin to envision a new society, as he put it, a “new normalcy” which brings us together; black and white into a new Alabama. In a sense, he was saying the same thing to the country; do not accept segregation either by lore or by practice as an acceptable way of life. In a sense he was saying we can do much better than that and if you allow yourself to move in that direction, you will see how beautiful we can possibly be.
Ingles: Just as he was boldly asking his audience to confront their fears, it seems that he tackles maybe the next most comment objection in social movements, that change takes too long. How long? Not long he says again and again toward the end of this speech. In his private moments, was there a sense that things in 1965 were starting to move faster than they ever had and that he could really himself believe in the “not long” of his own speech?
Harding: I am not sure about what he was thinking concerning the movement at that time. By 1965, many of the young people of the black community, especially in the North, there was evidence that they were growing impatient, that they were growingmore angry and that they were feeling a need which is, as you know, so terribly American, to get everything down now. Speaking about the various tasks that had to be done, Martin knew that those things could not be done overnight, could not be done “now.” What he knew was they had to begin now. People had to commit themselves to do the work now, but he did not want people to feel that “never” was the answer either. So he kept calling; “Not long.”
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Harding about King’s “Beyond Vietnam”
Speech of April 4, 1968, which Dr. Harding helped Dr. King write.
Baumgartel: A year to the day before King was assassinated he made a major speech at New York City’s Riverside Church detailing his opposition to the Vietnam War. Again, Dr. Vincent Harding talked with Paul Ingles.
Harding: Martin had been looking for an opportunity to express the fullness of his opposition to the war and to explain as fully as possible why that position was totally in keeping with his position as what people call the “Leader of the Civil Rights Movement in America.” When clergy and laymen concerned about the War in Vietnam asked him if he would come to Riverside Church, he felt that that was just the kind of setting and situation that he needed.
Ingles: Dr. Harding, were there in fact poverty programs being defunded to finance the war in Congress?
Harding: I am not close enough to that documentation to be able to speak with intelligence about that now. My comment that I would make on that is that throughout world history, it has been very, very clear that it is literally impossible for a country to be an imperial force in the world and at the same moment to tend to the needs of its own poorest people.
Ingles: He didn’t hold back, Dr. King. He exposed the ugliest underbelly of the Vietnam War by offering details about what our troops were doing to the population in the South and the North in order to beat back the North Vietnamese. These were descriptions that, at the time in 1967, were unbeknownst to most Americans.
When we look for relevance in this speech to people’s every day struggle with conflict, there seems to be a lot to offer in these lines which follow Dr. King’s suggestion of empathy.
Harding: He was speaking out of the context that comes from all of the great villages’ teachings. Essentially he was saying have we not been taught to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves? We are all God’s children. Have we not been taught that that means that we are called upon to feel with others especially the deep pain that they are experiencing and especially when our own country is, without justification, becoming the major source of that pain. King was essentially asking people to take the religion seriously. He was saying there must be another way to deal with our enemies.
Ingles: Well he goes from specific to general. He does take the speech to five points to follow to end the war, but then he broadens the scope. One of the more powerful lines is, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He even refers to machines and computers, profit motives, property rights considered more important than people. These words spoken by Dr. King in 1967 prompt the question these many years later: is there any hopeful sign that we’ve even slowed a bit to the approach of the spiritual death that he referred to?
Harding: No, what I find is that there are a lot of younger people who have become very thing-oriented as you know and we have made it much too easy for them to become thing-oriented and to spend even so much of their time looking at things that they no longer look at other human beings, but at the same moment Paul, I find coming out of that whole situation also young people who know that that is not the way of life rather than of death and I’m encouraged. So I myself feel that, on a certain level, despair about the USA at this stage is a matter of choice and I choose not to despair and I think Martin would be in that same community of choice.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Clayborne Carson, MLK scholar,
about King’s “Mountaintop” Speech of April 3, 1968.
Ingles: Remind us Dr. Carson, in selecting themes and stories for this particular talk, what do you think Dr. King was hoping to communicate or achieve? What do you think it reveals about this moment in King’s journey?
Carson: I think he laid out his post-Civil Rights agenda when he gave his Nobel Peace Prize lecture. There he said that racial injustice was only one of the three issues that were the central problems of mankind on a global basis. The other two had to do with poverty and war. These were the issues that drove him, as a leader who had always seen the connections, the linkages between the American Civil Rights movement and broader movements, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Ingles: Dr. King begins with kind of a sketch of human history in the first part of his oration here.
Carson: When you look at Martin Luther King’s great orations, one thing he does in all of them is he takes the immediate issue and puts it in a broader context. The audience in front of him is there because they’re involved in a labor strike. They’re trying to get more dollars per hour for their work and have better working conditions. He tries to tell them that it’s not about getting twenty cents more an hour for their work or ten cents more an hour. That’s not what is really driving this. It’s that they were a part of a freedom movement that was going on before they were born and it will affect their children and grandchildren. I think that’s what people in the audience were responding to was that he was giving them a deeper, more important reason for doing what they were doing and sustaining the strike because when you think about it, most strikes takes you years to gain back what you’ve lost in wages, so if it were just that, but strikes are also about dignity. He was saying that this is the freedom movement that is comparable to the great freedom movements throughout history.
Ingles: Dr. Carson, of course one of the most memorable things about this speech is this ominous hint that Dr. King suggests that he might not get there with his audience and he even tells this story about a previous assassination attempt of course all on the eve of his own assassination.
Carson: King understands that it’s a privilege to be there as these victories are occurring; to be part of that struggle. Many wonderful people in the history of the world; Gandhi never really got the opportunity to live in a free India. Many people don’t survive the struggle, but King understood that if the goal is worth it, if you’ve found something worth dying for, then you don’t have that fear of death and I think that’s what he wanted to convey to his audience, that he had seen some momentous changes in the world and that had made his life worth living.
Ingles: Do you think it was important for him knowing that he was vulnerable, as you say, to set the table for that possibility explicitly to say you don’t need me, I may not be there with you, so prepare yourself for that.
Carson: I think that that is a large measure of what he’s trying to get across. I think he always understood that he was not an essential part of that great struggle. Rosa Parks wasn’t waiting for Martin Luther King to give her instructions. The students involved in the sit-in’s and the freedom rights weren’t waiting for a message from Martin Luther King in order to launch those great movements of the early 1960s. King understood more than most people who said they followed him that he did not initiate the struggle and he could not control it. All he could do was to try to inspire it by saying that the struggle is worth it, that it’s toward a worthwhile goal. In his great speeches he gives us a glimpse of that future that he will never live to see.