The 1960s were very turbulent for the United States of America. The 1960s saw the rise of the Vietnam War, assassination a beloved president and civil rights and peace movements. It also witnessed the revolt of many of the most influential leaders in the world, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars have studied the relationship between the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War over the years. Some argue that the violence in the Middle East directly influenced domestic disturbances during the sixties. It can be said that the Vietnam War altered the course of Civil Rights movements. This led to some Civil Rights leaders changing the direction of their messages and words. Civil Rights leaders from the movement made more public statements in opposition to the war as the conflict escalated. This paper will discuss the common patterns that emerged among leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as the war escalated. These leaders started to look at civil rights from a wider perspective and brought international policy into the equation. Although many of these leaders were divided on the best way to tackle the problem, they all agreed on the “American hypocrisy”.
Many events in the 1950s were catalysts for the Civil Rights movement, which created advocates across the country. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education was one such event. It effectively ended racial segregation within public schools. Rosa Parks refused in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus to an Alabama white man. Many similar situations followed, culminating in the Sixties. This decade saw many leaders and activists like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and other popular resistance groups. Many of these leaders were fundamentally divided on how to advance the cause. Martin Luther King is known for his peaceful protesting style. This was particularly evident in the marches that he organized, such as the march to Washington. The march culminated with his “I have a Dream” speech, which presented a vision where race would not matter because integration would succeed. Malcolm X, unlike Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach, stated several times that he was in favor of violence if freedom is achieved for the people.
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These civil rights leaders became anxious as the conflict in Vietnam escalated. Many worried that by opposing war, they would lose their domestic fight. The war brought about a change in how the movement spoke out publicly about itself and what they would do for the people they were serving. This helped to bring together leaders around the common idea “American hypocrisy”, which led to a huge contradiction in citizens’ rights. This was due to the fact that African Americans were unable to make their voices heard. While they were expected to be in a war for freedom in another country, their freedom in their country was still denied to them. Christian Appy’s A Working Class War explains that “most of the Americans who fought and died in Vietnam were powerless, working class teenagers sent to fight an undeclared war by presidents for which they weren’t eligible to vote.” This reinforces the fact the United States promoted the war in Vietnam on the assumption that it was protecting South Vietnamese rights. Some wondered if the government wasn’t making the same promise to its citizens. This oxymoron was a major debate for many activists over the years, and it can even be considered the most controversial spark in the Civil Rights movement.
Malcolm X delivered his most famous speech to thousands of people in 1964. The speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, addresses the pivotal year they were in. Although the Vietnam War was not at its peak of escalation in this year, it was noticed by a wider audience. Malcolm X, tapping into that awareness, said: “Why, this guy, let two or three American Soldiers who are minding someone else’s business over in South Vietnam get killed, and he will send battleships, sticking nose in their business…this old cracker who hasn’t even got free elections in his country……” Although the speech didn’t directly address Vietnam’s war, he used it to explore the hypocrisy in the American government. He demonstrated that the American government is involved in foreign wars, while neglecting America’s domestic problems. Malcolm X was the first to speak out about American hypocrisy, using it as a backbone to his “by any means necessary” argument.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t publicly oppose war until 1965 when it escalated. He saw a strong connection between the war and the domestic problems they were facing. Dr. King was a strong advocate for integration before speaking publicly about the war. He stated that African American rights were human right and that they should be respected. Benjamin T. Harrison, a University of Louisville scholar, argued that King was a man of peace but was misunderstood. King was not a pacifist but was open to taking a stand when needed. His colleagues were critical of him for mentioning his opposition to the war. They thought King was confusing two seemingly unrelated subjects. King, however, disagreed and made public his disapproval of Vietnam War by using the full power of his position as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. It is important that you understand when King made his first comments. 1965 was the year in which thousands of American citizens were being drafted and were being killed. The media also pulled into the public sphere. The fact that many of those drafted were from the lower classes was a major controversy.
King made a speech at Howard University on March 2, 1965 in which he denounced the US government publicly and demanded a negotiated solution. Dr. King stated that he would not sit and watch war escalate without doing something about it. These leaders started to realize the negative effects of international policies on domestic policies. The 1965 Vietnam war escalated, threatening the resources of the Civil Rights Movement. This had a direct effect on the movement. The way leaders talked about the war changed and they started to reflect on the larger picture.
Martin Luther King Jr. saw the need for change in the movement. King believed that the Civil Rights movement should shift its focus to poverty on a national level. This meant that war had an impact on the poor and minority groups. Different scholars have delved into this topic. Christian Appy states that America’s most unpopular war was fought by nineteen-year old children of factory workers, truck drivers and secretaries, waitresses, fire fighters, firefighters, police officers, custodians and custodians, as well as salespeople, clerks and mechanics . This highlights the fact that many Americans who were poor were working-class groups and minorities and were forced to serve in a war they didn’t ask for. Dr. King stated several times that the war was taking resources away from the lower classes in order to protect citizens of another country. He demonstrated that government hypocrisy was the root cause of the war and the movement. The leaders of the movement began to speak out against the war more actively, now that they were aware of the negative effects on domestic affairs.
After being criticised by his aides and Civil Rights movement supporters for two years, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 entitled “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence.” It changed the course of Civil Rights movement and inspired other groups to do the same. Dr King stated, “We were taking black young men who had been disabled by our society and sending [eight thousand miles] away to guarantee liberties for Southeast Asia that they had not found in Southwest Georgia.” All of these leaders realized that the war was escalating and that they were fighting against what they were fighting domestically. This sudden shift in course was caused by the realization that Civil Rights advocacy had a direct connection to the war.
Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others disagreed frequently as we have already mentioned. They had very similar views about the government and the war. Both speeches were powerful and addressed the fact that the American government was taking resources away from its citizens. The United States’ involvement with the Vietnam War depleted resources and sent men from minority groups to fight for an ideology they did not believe in. These leaders decried Uncle Sam because they knew that supporting the war would only lead to worse domestic consequences. Malcolm X, for example, said “No, I’m not an American.” I am one of the 22 millions black people who have been harmed by Americanism. I am one of the 22 million people in black who are victims of democracy, nothing more than disguised hypocrisy.” This is Dr. King’s main argument. He states that “Before they long they must realize that their government has sent their government into a struggle between Vietnamese, and those who are more sophisticated will surely realize that while we make hell for the poor, we are on the side the secure and wealthy.” King also shows how the government used African Americans to advance their foreign policy agenda. Malcolm X and King both decry the United States government. They also discuss the possibility of a failing American system as the root cause of all problems.
These strong leaders began to speak out more against the Vietnam War and other civil rights movement groups followed. Among them, the SNCC and NAACP. These groups took a while to speak out on the topic. However, once they realized what American leaders had said about American hypocrisy, they did. SNCC members made their first uncompromising statement, saying that “blacks shouldn’t fight in Vietnam for white man freedom, until all Negro people in Mississippi are free.” This reiterates what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were saying by confirming the notion that the Civil Rights movement was now part a larger international debate. All of the statements by these leaders show a common theme. They believed it was hypocritical to draft black men to fight for freedom when they weren’t allowed to be free in the home where they lived.
These groups all joined together in different ways to critique the American system. Their message was changed by the direct connection that war had with the movement. The movement was supported by many public voices. Famous figures such as Muhammad Ali, a boxer, became advocates for Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Ali, along with Dr. King and Malcolm X, became a symbol for black strength due to the escalation in the war. Ali, when asked for the draft, said that he was not interested in being asked to wear a uniform, travel 10,000 miles, and drop bombs and bullets in Vietnam on brown people. While Negro in Louisville are being treated as dogs, this quote demonstrates the pattern most Civil Rights advocates have been referring to. Ali was recognized by the public for his refusal to conform with white behavior norms, rejection of “white” religion, and opposition to a white government or military. Ali was a strong advocate against the draft, bringing back the notion that the draft simply represented America’s failing system and hypocrisy.
Ali famously stated, “My conscious won’t let me shoot my brother, some darker people or some hungry people in the water for big powerful America.” You should shoot them for ?… What they did to me …” Was it because they weren’t given the same rights as white Americans? The Civil Rights movement started to see it from a wider perspective in the mid sixties. Ali’s and other voices had much to do with white supremacy in the world. This belief was directly impacting them at home, which proved once again that the movement needed to be linked with war. Leaders must identify ways that ending the war abroad would benefit civil rights in America. They used Vietnam to illustrate the contradictions in American systems.
Civil Rights movement leaders began to feel a greater sense of racial solidarity towards the Vietnamese. Different groups issued similar statements, expressing their solidarity with those who suffered the atrocities. Interviews were conducted with supporters of both the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. They said, “You know what, I just watched one of those Vietcong Guerillas on TV. He was dark-skinned, ragged and poor, and he was angry. He looked exactly like one of us,” the speaker said. This was based on their dark skin, which demonstrates a commonality among oppressed groups. A member of the SNCC movement group stated, “Our work, especially in the South taught us that the United States government never guaranteed freedom for oppressed citizen.” This shows how oppressed citizens are treated at home and abroad by the American government. These statements can be used as a way to understand the motivation behind the abrupt change in the direction and focus of Civil Rights. Although there were many factors that played a part in this, it is clear that Civil Rights leaders who spoke out about the war felt the same as the victims.
The escalation in Vietnam War brought out many similarities among civil rights movements groups. Given the similarities between the war and the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent advocate for the antiwar movement. All leaders and activists were profoundly influenced by war, even though they maintained their core principles and ideals. The war allowed them to shift the direction of their messages, based on the realization that the cause they were fighting fit within a wider international framework. Dr. King, for example, used war to promote a more general idea of integration that was the main focus in his work. Malcolm X, on the other hand, spoke of the war to encourage violence. To illustrate a group of people fighting for freedom, he used the Vietnam war victims as an example.
While Civil Rights Movement leaders and advocates may disagree on their core principles, they all agreed on the problems caused by the war. They came to an agreement on the injustice of the war. Millions of African Americans weren’t free in their country and were sent overseas to fight for freedom. This paradox made leaders from all ideologies join forces to fight against American hypocrisy. All groups began to fight for the same ideology as each other as time went on. They wanted to end the American system that had put them in such a position. They hoped to be able to fight for freedom for all people and not just one racial group. Muhammad Ali once stated, “If they thought the war would bring freedom and equality twenty-two million people, they wouldn’t have to draft us, I’d join tomorrow.” This shows once again that the majority of those in the movement didn’t need to be forced to fight for something that was beneficial to all. They realized that they had to look at the larger picture before they could fight for their rights domestically.
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