Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Radical, Not a Saint
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King's growing critique of capitalism coincided with his views about American imperialism. By 1965 he had turned against the Vietnam War, viewing it as an economic as well as a moral tragedy. But he was initially reluctant to speak out against the war. He understood that his fragile working alliance with LBJ would be undone if he challenged the president's leadership on the war. Although some of his close advisers tried to discourage him, he nevertheless made the break in April 1967, in a bold and prophetic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, entitled "Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break Silence." King called America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism. King argued that Vietnam was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that the Vietnam War was "an enemy of the poor." In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), King wrote, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America."
In early 1968, King told journalist David Halberstam, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."
King kept trying to build a broad movement for economic justice that went beyond civil rights. In January 1968 he announced plans for a Poor People's Campaign, a series of protests to be led by an interracial coalition of poor people and their allies among the middle-class liberals, unions, religious organizations, and other progressive groups, to pressure the White House and Congress to expand the War on Poverty. At King's request, socialist activist Michael Harrington (author of The Other America, which helped inspire Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to declare a war on poverty) drafted a Poor People's Manifesto that outlined the campaign's goals. In April King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to help lend support to striking African American garbage workers and to gain recognition for their union. There he was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, a few months before the first protest action of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, DC.
President Johnson utilized this national tragedy to urge Congress to quickly enact the Fair Housing Act, legislation to ban racial discrimination in housing that King had strongly supported for two years. He signed the bill a week after King's assassination.
The campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor, spearheaded by Detroit Congressman John Conyers, began soon after his murder, but it did not come up for a vote in Congress until 1979, when it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. In 1981, with the help of singer Stevie Wonder and other celebrities, supporters collected six million signatures on a petition to Congress on behalf of a King holiday. Congress finally passed legislation enacting the holiday in 1983, fifteen years after King's death. But even then, 90 members of the House (including then-Congressmen John McCain of Arizona and Richard Shelby of Alabama, both now in the Senate) voted against it. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, led an unsuccessful effort -- supported by 21 other senators, including current Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) -- to block its passage in the Senate.
The holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986. In 1987 Arizona governor Evan Mecham rescinded King Day as his first act in office, setting off a national boycott of the state. Some states (including New Hampshire, which called it "Civil Rights Day" from 1991 to 1999) insisted on calling the holiday by other names. In 2000 South Carolina became the last state to make King Day a paid holiday for all state employees.