On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the Riverside Church in New York and denounced the war in Vietnam. This was not an easy or popular thing to do. In 1967 critics of the war were still a minority and were often denounced as unpatriotic.
Many supporters of King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement were afraid that associating the struggle for equal rights at home with opposition to the war would lose African Americans many allies, especially within the Democratic Party and the Johnson administration. But, King said, there comes a “time to break silence” and that in facing the ever-widening war, “silence is betrayal.”
It was in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s courageous dissent that the Black Radical Congress called a meeting last week, in the midst of yet another war, on the same day in the same church to express and mobilize the anti-war perspectives of the African-American community.
The meeting was held April 4 in the Christ Chapel at the historic Riverside Church, which sits on the border of Harlem and the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The chapel was overflowing with almost 200 people sitting in the chapel, and more standing outside in the hallways. The majority of the crowd was African American, but there were significant numbers of white and Latino people attending.
The meeting opened with a trio from the choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” Rev. James Forbes, senior pastor of the church, welcomed the audience, and asked us to reflect on whether Dr. King died in vain.
Humberto Brown, International Secretary of the New York Black Radical Congress, spoke of the necessity of linking the domestic concerns of the African American community with the problems caused by U.S. imperialism abroad. He quoted King’s statement that “the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and commented that this part of King’s ideas is never mentioned during the official celebrations of Dr. King’s birthday.
Rita Lasar whose brother was killed in the World Trade Center attack, came to the podium and spoke about how the lesson of Sept. 11 was not to increase violence, but to work more strongly for peace. She spoke of her visit to Afghanistan with others whose family members were killed. She said that what the war was doing to the Afghan people dishonored her brother and other victims.
The final speaker, Prof. Manning Marable, of Columbia University and a founder of the BRC, brought the meeting together, speaking about the links between King and the struggles of today, and the ways that militarism negatively impact the African-American community.
The many speakers, including city council members and representatives from many groups, and participants in the meeting showed the depth of opposition to the war in the African-American community in New York. The Civil Rights movement is often portrayed as being limited to achieving desegregated buses and drinking fountains. The real connection between Civil Rights and anti-militarism represented by Dr. King and his life and ideas is all too easily ignored by mainstream accounts of King and the movement. This event showed that the real tradition is alive and thriving.
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