As the nation prepares to acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy this Monday, Jan. 20, the 85th anniversary of his physical birth actually passed on Wednesday, Jan. 15. Ever since 1986, the third Monday in January of every year has been recognized as a national holiday in observance of his socially reforming achievements. While the fearless civil rights leader will be eternally linked with the concept of nonviolent resistance, very little mention is made of the revolutionary views he held during his last few years on this physical plain.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable!” he warned during his historic “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered at Harlem’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly 365 days prior to his assassination in Memphis, Tenn.
A couple years earlier, shortly after leading thousands on the five-day march from Selma, Ala., to the capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965, King encountered Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Tuie), a young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist who had helped form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The all-Black, independent political group’s philosophies were influential in the formation of the Black Panther Party out in Oakland, Calif., the following October, and their mascot was adopted by them as well.
The native New Yorker recalled the response the Southern preacher’s presence created in the area, which boasted a Black majority: “People loved King! I’ve seen people in the South climb over each other just to say, ‘I touched him! I touched him!’ The people didn’t know what was SNCC.”
Although there was great respect between Carmichael and King, the two fiercely debated over the topics of Black radicalism, racial integration and the future of the Civil Rights Movement.
“[Caucasian] Americans must recognize that justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged … cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo. There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with Black aspirations for freedom and human dignity,” asserted King during his “Where Do We Go From Here?” sermon at the 11th annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 1967.
Having witnessed police terrorism firsthand, as well as other violent, racist acts committed by Caucasians, Carmichael took a more militant stance, utilizing nonviolence as a method to organize people, rather than as an actual strategy.
King disapproved of Carmichael’s uncompromising “Black Power!” slogan, suggesting that it had violent connotations. Carmichael later admitted to utilizing the intimidating term during the march in an effort to goad King to address the issue.
At first, King was reluctant to comment about their opposing views, but he later acknowledged their differences: ‘‘If Stokely Carmichael now says that nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because he, as a dedicated veteran of many battles, has seen with his own eyes the most brutal [Caucasian] violence against [Blacks] and [Caucasian] civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished.”
The two freedom fighters equally opposed the imperialistic Vietnam War, with Carmichael encouraging King to publicly oppose it, while some of King’s advisors cautioned him not to do so.
“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” assessed King during his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
On April 30, 1967, King began his ‘‘Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam’’ speech at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, with Carmichael firmly seated in the front row.
King declared: ‘‘There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Crow, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.” Carmichael, along with the congregation, then stood and applauded King.