Star Trek was one of the most important television programs of the 1960s. Here Christopher Benedict explores why through the many fascinating characters and plots. It was also a show that Martin Luther King, Junior enjoyed – and one that broke boundaries on race in one very important way.

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk on  Star Trek . Source:  here .

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk on Star Trek. Source: here.

Strange New Worlds

Martin Luther King, Junior was, still is, and always shall be remembered and revered for the myriad roles and responsibilities he assumed during a life which was as astonishing for its historical and cultural impact as it was appalling for the barbaric manner in which it was often disturbed and ultimately terminated.

Among his assumed or accepted capacities were preacher, teacher and practitioner of nonviolent resistance, writer, agitator, community organizer, civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner. And Trekkie?

Even Nichelle Nichols, who played the groundbreaking part of Lieutenant Uhura - Communications Officer aboard the USS Enterprise on the short-lived but beloved original series of Star Trek - could hardly believe it. She would learn of Dr. King’s affinity for Gene Roddenberry’s visionary science fiction program when she found herself at a professional and existential crossroads, acting eventually upon-and revitalized by-personal counsel originating from a most unexpected source. Her peace-keeping mission was no longer relegated simply to the distant and abstract galaxies of Uhura’s 23rd century “where no man has gone before”, but in the very real here and now of the turbulent 1960s where Ms. Nichols could and would have a more direct, forceful, and noble influence.

 

To Boldly Go

Star Trek was not an easy sell. Having signed a development deal with Desilu Productions (started by, and named for, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) Gene Roddenberry submitted a proposal to executives at CBS for an episodic drama modeled after the popular western Wagon Train, transporting the consequent adventures from the American heartland to outer space. Though they were not necessarily contemptuous of science fiction as a genre with prime-time viewership potential, CBS did dismiss Star Trek as “too cerebral” in favor of the more sanitized and banal Lost in Space, a sort of interstellar Leave it to Beaver.

Roddenberry then pitched his concept to NBC which agreed to move forward after overhauling the show’s cast (Spock being the only character retained) due to the dismal reception of the pilot episode called The Cage. Unlike the creators of Lost in Space, Rodenberry was uninterested in formulaic, obtuse entertainment depicting a gentrified cast acting out pointless hijinks for the dubious benefit of injudicious audiences. Indeed, he was hell-bent on crafting an audaciously philosophical and tirelessly optimistic vision of the future which would be both brain-teasing and gut-checking, defiantly challenging racial prejudices, social constructs, and political xenophobia of the day.

“Gene was a man of ideas and ideals,” explains original cast member turned social media sensation George Takei. “Our human past may not have been all good, and neither had the history of his creation, Star Trek. But he had the boldness of spirit to go into a medium-television-famous for mediocrity and uplift it and succeed, against all odds, with idealism.”

To scratch the surface of what Takei describes as Roddenberry’s “world of infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, you need only examine a snapshot of the team gathered aboard the bridge of the Enterprise.

 

A Constellation of Rising Stars: Leonard Nimoy as Spock

Second in command and dogmatically contrary to the swashbuckling James Tiberius Kirk, whose heroics were almost always reactionary and emotion-driven, was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, the ship’s Science Officer. His mother an Earth woman and his father Sarek a green-blooded Vulcan, Spock is denigrated as a “half-breed” by an android version of Kirk in the episode What Are Little Girls Made Of? Spock inherited not only Sarek’s pointed ears and perennially arched eyebrows but the predominant Vulcan trait of thinking and acting strictly within the logical boundaries of mathematics and science.

The wrestling match between sensible reason and deliberate speculation which the partly-human Spock must occasionally participate in is reminiscent (as is his physical appearance in a vague fashion) of Abraham Lincoln who grappled with similar ideological conflicts in his speechwriting, policy making, and personal thinking. What later turns out to be a carbon-based copy of Lincoln beams aboard the Enterprise in the Savage Curtain episode (third to last of the original series) and encounters Lt. Uhura to whom he refers as “an enchanting Negress”. Uhura takes no offense, assuring a properly chagrined ‘Lincoln’ that “in our century, we’ve learned not to fear words.” The replicated Emancipator replies, “The foolishness of my century had me apologizing where no offense was given.”

 

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura

The visually striking and multi-talented Nichelle Nichols had modeled, danced in Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club, traveled extensively as a singer in the ensembles of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, and appeared variously onstage and onscreen. She was featured in Gene Roddenberry’s first series titled, appropriately for the soon-to-be Communications Officer of the Enterprise, The Lieutenant. Interestingly, because Uhura’s makeup swept her hair atop her head and accentuated Nichols’ naturally almond-shaped eyes, she was often mistaken for Asian by people viewing the program on black and white television sets.

 

George Takei as Sulu

The role of Helmsman Hikaru Sulu was filled by George Takei, who was very involved in several early plot lines alongside the show’s central triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (“Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor…”) played memorably by DeForest Kelley. Born Hosato Takei in Los Angeles to Japanese parents, he (at the age of four) and his family were rounded up along with more than 120,000 other Japanese Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and interred for five years in a perpetual state of “chaos and confusion” among “rows upon rows of black tar paper-covered Army barracks aligned in military parade precision”, first in Alabama’s Rohwer Relocation Center then Camp Tule Lake back in California.

Prior to navigating the Enterprise out of a succession of hazardous situations among the stars, one of Takei’s first film appearances was an uncredited role as the Japanese steerer who pulverizes Lt. John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat in PT-109.

 

Walter Koenig as Chekov

Takei’s prolonged absence while filming The Green Berets opposite John Wayne was responsible for the increased screen time given to Walter Koenig, introduced as Ensign Pavel Chekov in Star Trek’s second season. His parents, Isadore and Sarah Koningsberg, were Russian Jews who fled Lithuania for Chicago and ultimately New York where Isadore, a former Communist, found himself subject to scrutiny beneath the red-tinted lens of Joseph McCarthy’s un-American activities microscope. Koenig compared the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1940s and 50s to “our version of the Spanish Inquisition or Robespierre’s Committee on Public Safety or the shadow councils of South American dictatorships.”

Roddenberry’s addition of a Russian to the cast was a further controversial brushstroke of brilliant multiplicity just as the successful missions of Sputnik and Vostok had given the Soviets the lead in the jingoistic space race, throwing further fuel onto the fire of the still-simmering Cold War. Beyond giving the prematurely balding actor a mop-topped toupee, drawing favorable comparisons among female Trekkers with Davey Jones of the Monkees, and requesting that Koenig over-enunciate an already cartoonish Russian accent (such as swapping W’s for V’s), Roddenberry’s public relations department concocted another puzzling fabrication.

The character of Chekov, according to a press release which was every bit a work of fiction as Star Trek itself, was created to satisfy the call for a Russian cast member proposed by the Soviet newspaper Pravda, a publication which pre-dated the October Revolution but had enjoyed its most immense readership under Lenin’s rule along with the Bolsheviks’ other propaganda sheet of choice Izvestia.       

 

James Doohan as Scotty

James Doohan confessed that he was Canadian with “some Scottish blood in me, but that’s three hundred years ago.” He recalled being asked by Gene Roddenberry during his audition to judge for himself“which of the eight different accents I’ve just done for him would best fit the role of the Chief Engineer. It had better be a Scotsman,” Doohan decided. “They’ve built all the great ships around the world. The Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the Titanic…”

That last example notwithstanding, the Enterprise’s Transporter Engineer adopted the guise of Montgomery Scott, still associated today with the catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty”. Like “Play it again, Sam”, it is one of those peculiar anomalies of the pop-culture lexicon for having never actually been spoken as quoted. Much to Doohan’s regret, the aforementioned Lincoln-related episode Savage Curtain would be the only opportunity for Scotty to don the traditional Scottish kilt.

 

MLK Rescues Uhura    

Star Trek did not become the mainstream cultural phenomenon that it remains today until after its 1969 cancelation and subsequent network syndication in the 70s. The series suffered, during its inaugural season, from lukewarm critical reaction and poor viewership ratings. It was also nearly altered drastically and for the worse by the potential departure of one of its major cast members.

Nichelle Nichols was routinely given a difficult time by certain security guards on the Paramount lot who pretended not to recognize the unmistakable actress with the intention of denying her access to the show’s soundstage. One afternoon, she was approached covertly by two mailroom employees who apologized for withholding the bulk of her voluminous fan correspondence - which rivaled that of either Leonard Nimoy or William Shatner - at the request of their supervisor who himself was acting on orders handed down from above.

Worse still, she was verbally accosted by a Desilu executive who told her in no uncertain terms following a first-season cast reduction that “If anyone was let go, it should have been you, not Grace Lee,” referring to Grace Lee Whitney who had played Captain Kirk’s personal assistant and hopeful love interest Yeoman Janice Rand until her role was deemed redundant. “Ten of you could never equal one blue-eyed blonde,” was his bigoted analysis.

These events proved the breaking point of the frustration already weighing heavily upon her at being little more than a prop on the ship’s bridge (with the notable exception of getting to sing in two early episodes), exhibiting her shapely legs in a red mini-dress and interminably intoning the line, “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” The last episode of the season having wrapped, Nichelle went to Gene Roddenberry’s office and tendered her resignation, effective immediately.

She attended an NAACP fundraiser the following evening where a fellow guest asked if she could take some time to meet with a big fan. Anticipating a short cordial chat followed by an autograph request or photo opportunity, Nichols was astounded to turn and stand face to face with Martin Luther King, Junior. “Yes, I am that fan,” King beamed, “and I wanted to tell you how important your role is.” He revealed to her that Star Trek was the only television show that he and Coretta allowed the children to stay up late and watch as a family and was completely taken aback by Nichele’s revelation that she was departing the program.

“You cannot and must not,” demanded King. “You have opened a door which must not be allowed to close. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. For the first time, people see us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people, as we should be. Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color. This is what Gene Roddenberry has given us.”

Nichols returned to Roddenberry on Monday morning to relay Dr. King’s message and retract her resignation. “God bless that man,” Gene said while fighting back tears. “At least someone sees what I’m trying to achieve.”

 

The Kiss

Before the series wound down to its fateful and unfortunate third season conclusion, it would shock the world with a provocative episode titled Plato’s Stepchildren. It begins in a manner not dissimilar from The Squire of Gothos (wherein Uhura is identified by the French-obsessed alien presence Trelane as “a Nubian prize”) as a landing party consisting of the crew’s principal players is manipulated for the amusement of their nefarious hosts. Here, a Utopian society has been founded on the planet Platonia by its leader Parmen based on the teachings of the ancient Greeks, namely Plato and Socrates.

Lt. Uhura and Nurse Chapel (Roddenberry’s wife Majel) are involuntarily beamed down to Platonia for inclusion in a stage play-equal parts dramatic, romantic, and sadistic-along with Kirk and Spock, all in Greek costume and under the influence of Parmen’s psycho-kinetic control. After Spock and Nurse Chapel have already done so, Kirk and Uhura have no choice but to comply with Parmen’s wish to see them kiss. This is commonly and mistakenly referred to as television’s first inter-racial kiss but the truth of the matter is that the British soap opera Emergency Ward 10 beat Star Trek to the lip-smacking punch four years earlier.

Furthermore, the sequence, as aired, features the second alternate take shot at the insistence of Paramount executives where Shatner pulls a struggling Nichols toward him and their lips do not make direct contact. This measure was taken to placate southern network affiliates who threatened to black out the entire hour based solely on the presentation of ‘the kiss’.

“And even when we shot this compromised version of the scene, I can clearly recall the network suits standing on the set watching us intently,” remembers William Shatner, “making sure that before the two of us performed our simulated kiss, we fought against it intently, making it absolutely clear that in the case of Kirk and Uhura, this was an ‘against their will’ coupling. Completely devoid of any passion, romance, or sexuality.” Nichelle Nichols raged that “It was bullshit! Bullshit! It was simply and clearly racism standing in the door…in suits. Strange how a twenty-third century space opera could be so mired in antiquated hang-ups.”

Regardless, it was a mountain-moving moment in American television and one can only imagine that writer Meyer Dolinsky anticipated the furor this scene would arouse when he scripted the lines of dialogue beginning with Uhura saying, “I’m so frightened, Captain. I’m so very frightened.”

“That’s the way they want you to feel,” Kirk reassures her. “It makes them think that they’re alive.” Uhura then declares affirmatively and defiantly that “I’m thinking of all the times on the Enterprise when I was scared to death…and now they’re making me tremble. But I’m not afraid. I am not afraid.”

 

Down to Earth and Back to Space  

Many cast members happily accepted the challenge to “seek out new life and new civilizations” after they had shed their Starfleet insignia, tri-corders, communicators, and phasers (set to stun, of course).

Nichelle Nichols would use her sci-fi credibility to recruit engineers and astronauts for NASA, specifically appealing to females and minorities. Augmenting the encouragement she had received from Martin Luther King back in 1966, she would be further touched by the words of Whoopi Goldberg who would appear as Guinan on the last four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whoopi excitedly conveyed the story to Nichelle of how she had turned on the television as a child and seen Uhura featured prominently on the bridge of the Enterprise, screaming to her mother, “Come quick! Come quick! There’s a black lady on tv and she ain’t no maid.”  

Leonard Nimoy campaigned for the dovish Eugene McCarthy and worked on behalf of the ACLU, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One of the songs that appeared on Nimoy’s 1974 double-LP Outer Space/Inner Mind was a track entitled Abraham, Martin, and John, a musical tribute to Lincoln, King, John and Bobby Kennedy.

George Takei, an openly gay man with a decidedly wicked sense of humor, proudly uses his frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show as well as his various social media platforms to advocate for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage legislation along with his husband Brad. The hit musical Allegiance, starring Takei and based on his experiences in the Japanese internment camps, opened at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has played to great acclaim in several major cities with a recent run at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre.

Suffering terribly from a hellish combination of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and pulmonary disease, James Doohan was honored shortly before his 2005 death with a convention called Beam Me Up One Last Time, Scotty. The keynote speaker was Neil Armstrong who made a rare public appearance to express his gratitude for the inspiration that Star Trek had given him in his quest toward the moon. “I want a Chief Engineer like Montgomery Scott,” Armstrong mused on a hypothetical return to the stars, “because I know Scotty will get the job done and do it right. Even if I often hear him say, ‘But, Captain, I dinna have enough time!’ So, from one old engineer to another, thanks Scotty.” Doohan was cremated after passing away, his ashes successfully beamed up into near-earth orbit in 2012-after two previously failed attempts-aboard the Falcon 9 rocket.

Live Long and Prosper!

 

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Sources

Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols (1994, Putnam)

To the Stars: Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu by George Takei (1994, Simon & Schuster)

Warped Factors: A Neurotic’s Guide to the Universe by Walter Koenig (1997, Taylor Publishing)

Beam Me Up, Scotty by James Doohan with Peter David (1996, Pocket Books)

Star Trek Memories by William Shatner with Chris Kreski (1993, Harper Collins) 

I Am Not Spock by Leonard Nimoy (1975, Celestial Arts)

We follow the intertwined fates of Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy – two men who were linked in tragedy. Following the first part here, Christopher Benedict continues his piece on the awful spring of 1968 by considering the words of Kennedy following King’s assassination, and still more tragic events in June 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy giving a speech in Los Angeles, California in the spring of 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy giving a speech in Los Angeles, California in the spring of 1968.

Binding a Nation’s Wounds

Ted Sorensen, an old family friend as well as President John F. Kennedy’s Special Counselor and main speechwriter, remembers receiving a phone call at his home in Washington DC the night of April 4, 1968 from Robert Kennedy who “asked for my thoughts on a speech scheduled for the next day in Cleveland, saying he would call me back in an hour. When he hung up, I scribbled as quickly as I could on scraps of paper - with the assassination of King in my mind, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy in my heart.”

Bobby also enlisted the guidance of Jeff Greenfield and Adam Walinsky who would assist in composing an earnest plea for nonviolence and national unity to be delivered during a luncheon at Cleveland’s City Club, the only campaign commitment over the course of the following week that a grief-stricken Kennedy was intent to follow through with. It proved to be a logical extension of his spontaneous remarks made the previous evening and, taken together, Robert Kennedy’s finest hours.

 

Cause and Effect of Institutional Violence

“This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics,” Bobby insisted at the outset of his oration. “It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed.”

Channeling Abraham Lincoln, who had been elevated one century before Bobby’s own brother to the status of bipartisan patron saint, Kennedy reiterated the Great Emancipator’s sentiments that “Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.” But this was no mere occasion for soothing the nation’s injuries with the placebo of lofty rhetoric and well-chosen but ultimately trivial quotation. Kennedy opted instead to pry inside those wounds and diagnose the root causes of the collective systemic traumas now and for centuries before plaguing its inhabitants.

“There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly and destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”

Allowing that “I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies, nor is there a single set,” Bobby continues to caution how “when you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest. To be subjugated and mastered.”

“We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens,” Kennedy forges ahead, “men with whom we share a city but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other. Only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.”

“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land,” Kennedy concludes his prognosis. “Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen again.”

 

A Dream Dead and Buried

Martin Luther King’s funeral and burial took place on April 7 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Besides Bobby, Ethel and Jackie Kennedy, among the faces in the crowd of mourners could be seen Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Jimmy Breslin, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr.

Conspicuous by his absence was President Lyndon Johnson, explained by Kennedy as being due to a “lack of physical courage”. Bobby was involved in a brief but very telling exchange with Charles Evers, the sibling of black activist Medgar Evers who was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi only hours after John F. Kennedy had given his nationally televised address on civil rights which itself followed Robert’s showdown with George Wallace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that afternoon.

“Do you think this will change anything?” Bobby asked as they walked side by side in the procession, referring to King’s assassination.

“Nothing,” Charles replied. “Didn’t mean nothing when my brother was killed.”

“I know,” commiserated Bobby. His own funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was less than two months away.

 

Dreams of Things That Never Were

Having sweated out a four percentage-point victory over McCarthy in the all-important California primary, Kennedy took the stage of the Ambassador Hotel’s Embassy Ballroom ten minutes after midnight on June 5. Ethel stood proudly by his side and her bodyguard Rosey Grier, former Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the NFL’s Giants and Rams, looked on approvingly and towered menacingly from the rear of the crowded rostrum.

Minutes later, Grier would be one of several people in the Ambassador’s kitchen wrestling the pistol away from Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian disgruntled with Kennedy’s statements in support of Israel, still pulling the trigger as they did so. Also involved in the fracas were journalists and novelists Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, and Budd Schulberg - the author, boxing scribe, and screenwriter of On the Waterfront who had taken Bobby to visit his Watts Writers Workshop a few days before and had been hand-picked to script a film version of The Enemy Within, Kennedy’s 1960 account of The McLellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions which would never go before cameras.

Humble, hopeful, and grateful yet clearly weary, the Senator spent the majority of his speech sweeping the bangs of his unruly hair from his eyes and thanking the specific members of his staff who had worked so diligently and effectively on his behalf. Well aware that Gene McCarthy was going nowhere and indeed dug in for a fight to the finish in the political trenches, Bobby had good reason to be confident and cautiously optimistic.

“And now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” Robert F. Kennedy concluded with a boyish grin. The index and middle fingers of his right hand extended upward.

V for victory?

A peace sign?

In the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, I like to think it was both.

 

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Sources

  • The Days of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jim Bishop (1971, Putnam)
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (1998, Warner Books)
  • Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman (1998, Bantam)
  • Robert Kennedy: A Memoir by Jack Newfield (1969, Dutton)
  • RFK: Collected Speeches edited by Edwin O. Guthman and C. Richard Allen (1993, Viking)
  • Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History by Ted Sorensen (2008, Harper Collins)
  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)

We explore the intertwined fates of Martin Luther King, Junior, and Robert F. Kennedy – two men who were linked in tragedy. In the first of two parts, Christopher Benedict starts by considering an awful event in the tumultuous spring of 1968 that brought them ‘together’.

Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy together in 1963.

Martin Luther King, Junior and Robert F. Kennedy together in 1963.

Trouble is in the Land

Things were daily going from bad to worse in Memphis. No one could possibly have possessed the foresight to predict how terrible it would get.

The city’s mostly black sanitation workers had been on strike since February 12, 1968 following a breakdown in mediations between their union and newly elected mayor Henry Loeb which took place in the immediate aftermath of an on-the-job accident that claimed the lives of two public employees. Picket lines, sit-ins, peaceful protests, and a gospel singing marathon result in replacement scabs, an enforced curfew, police brutality, and the deligitimisation of their more than reasonable demands for safer working conditions and equitable economic compensation.

Persevering thanks to the endorsement and solidarity of the NAACP and Ministerial Association, the workers are further bolstered by the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. who announces his orchestration of and participation in an organized citywide march. With King in the lead, an ambulatory rally sets out from Clayborn Temple en route to City Hall on March 28. Many demonstrators carry placards or wear sandwich boards bearing four words, the simplicity of which only adds immeasurably to their profundity. I AM A MAN.

It would not be ungraciously fair or unfair to jump to the conclusion that this self-affirmation was a contemporary repudiation of the Constitutional Convention’s compromise that individual slaves represented only three-fifths of a human being, a damning credence espoused by the founding fathers of a nation which, as King articulated in his I Have a Dream speech, “has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” It was clear that “her citizens of color” were now intent upon collecting payment of the promissory note on which America had defaulted for nearly two hundred years. “This will not be a dramatic gesture,” vowed Dr. King, “but a demand for long overdue compensation.”

The march never reaches its destination. Vandalism is dealt with harshly, by means of billy clubs, tear gas and bullets. Hundreds of arrests, scores of injuries, and the death of 16 year-old Larry Payne necessitate the intervention of the National Guard shortly after sundown. Dr. King cancels a planned visit to Africa to see things through in Memphis, returning on April 3 to deliver what would prove to be a chillingly prophetic oration at the Masonic Temple.

Addressing the potential of his having walked directly into harm’s way by virtue of the threats issued “from some of our sick white brothers”, King concedes that “longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m so happy tonight,” he shouts exultantly, his voice soaring as the congregation likewise gives voice to its collective approval. “I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Martin Luther King retires to the Lorraine Motel. In a boarding house across the street, a white supremacist drifter named James Earl Ray unpacks binoculars and a rifle from a duffel bag.

 

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Like the very year itself, the 1968 Democratic Primary season was both a momentous and contentious one. New York’s carpet bagging Senator, Robert F. Kennedy (bobby), faced challenges from three formidable sources. First there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the fray after Lyndon Johnson famously declared his intention to neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination. It was common knowledge that, despite the popularity contests at the polls, the party delegates overwhelmingly supported the old stalwart Humphrey.

Secondly, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy succeeded in galvanizing the youth movement which was anti-establishment, anti-war, and as hostile as college-aged peaceniks could be towards Robert Kennedy who, only now that LBJ had removed himself from the equation of presidential succession, spoke out openly and vehemently against Vietnam. Kennedy touched on both matters simultaneously by answering a question from a student at the University of Alabama with the jocular rejoinder that “I said I was for a coalition government in Saigon. Not here.”

Last, but certainly not least, the ever-present ghost of John F. Kennedy haunted his brother, Bobby, to the point where he seemed most of the time, in the words of journalist and Bobby’s close friend Jack Newfield, “half a zombie”. After receiving an emotional twenty-two minute standing ovation on the last day of the 1964 DNC in Atlantic City where he introduced a short film on Jack’s legacy, Bobby is said to have climbed out onto a nearby fire escape and cried. He often wondered whether the ecstatic throngs that showed up for his campaign rallies pulling at his clothing and mop-top hair in the hope of scoring a personal souvenir were there to see and hear him or simply touch a tangible extension of who and what his brother meant to them.

April 4 began, for Kennedy, as little more than the launch of the Indiana primaries. He delivered talks on child poverty, hunger, and joblessness first at Notre Dame University then at Ball State where he was confronted by a young black man about whether the Senator’s faith in white America was justified. “I think the vast majority of white people want to do the decent thing,” Kennedy responded.

Before boarding a plane from Muncie to Indianapolis, where he was to address an inner-city suburb that evening, Bobby received a phone call from his campaign manager Pierre Salinger (who had been JFK’s Press Secretary) informing him that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. “When he landed in Indianapolis,” recalled Jack Newfield, “Kennedy was told that King was dead. Shot in the head-a wound not unlike John Kennedy’s. Robert Kennedy gasped and then wept for his adversary turned comrade.”

 

Something to Be Desired

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were unlikely allies, and often uneasy ones at that. Bobby and Jack twice interceded on King’s behalf while imprisoned, a politically expedient but not totally disingenuous first effort which succeeded in excusing him from a sentence of hard labor after a protest in Georgia during the closing months of the 1960 presidential election cycle, followed by getting King removed from solitary confinement and placed back into the general population of Birmingham Jail from where he wrote his famous letter in response to fellow clergymen who, not unlike the Kennedys in days not long gone, viewed the civil rights leader as a rabble-rouser and trouble-maker.

It was Robert who, as Attorney General, initiated an investigation into King’s alleged Communist affiliations and approved the home and office wiretapping order requested by J. Edgar Hoover who had become obsessed in a most unwholesome way with the extracurricular sexual exploits of both King and John Kennedy.

King had voiced his displeasure at the failure of the Justice Department to enforce integrated public transit as well as Bobby’s reluctance in providing proper protection for the interracial Freedom Rides which departed Washington DC for points south, leading to arrests, bloody beatings, and the firebombing of one bus in Anniston, Alabama. After initially calling for restraint on the part of the Freedom Riders, Bobby arranged for armed escorts courtesy of the Alabama State Highway Patrol to conduct them safely to Montgomery by Greyhound.

August 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was another thorn in the side of the Kennedys. Despite making good on their pledge of cooperation with the event’s Big Six (King, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and Whitney Young) in coordinating the rally, the excision of the more incendiary passages in John Lewis’ opening speech critical of the Kennedy presidency was guided by the administration’s heavy hand.

The President and Attorney General were far more consistent and pro-active in their handling of James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi and even more so in Bobby’s successful standoff with Governor George Wallace who personally acted as a bodily barrier against the admission of Vivian Jones and James Hood into the University of Alabama. King noted that the President “grew a great deal” between his inauguration and assassination with the mournful misgiving that “he was getting ready to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues.”

While the full extent of JFK’s ideological evolution can only be surmised due to its violent interruption, Robert Kennedy had an additional four and a half years to continue his forward progress before suffering a similarly obscene fate. As Senator of New York, Bobby created the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation after touring the poverty-stricken, drug and gang-infested neighborhood known as Brooklyn’s Little Harlem and being deeply affected by what he saw and who he met there. During the 1968 presidential campaign, he would make purposeful and extensive detours to urban areas where others feared to go-aligning himself along the way with the inner cities’ disenfranchised black communities, Cesar Chavez and California’s fruit-picking migrant workers, and former SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) President, Freedom Rider, Washington Marcher, and Kennedy agitator John Lewis who is now and has been since 1987 the Democratic Congressional Representative of Georgia’s 5th District.

 

The Awful Grace of God

Lewis, then a member of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign staff, was waiting at 17th and Broadway, the site of Bobby’s planned rally, along with approximately 3,000 spectators. Although Lewis and fellow aide Earl Graves were aware of Martin Luther King’s assassination, most early arrivals among the gathering were not. The latecomers on the outer perimeter, however, had heard the news and were pressing in, filling the night air with the possibility of sinister unease as riots had already erupted spontaneously and sporadically across the country. Several of Kennedy’s more anxious advisors cautioned him to cancel his appearance and the local police could not and would not guarantee his personal safety should he choose to proceed. John Lewis was of the belief that they simply could not “send them home without saying anything at all. Kennedy has to speak, for his sake and for the sake of these people.”

Bobby had already made up his mind to not only press ahead and address the audience, but to jettison his prepared remarks and speak from the heart rather than read from a piece of paper. Although speechwriter Frank Mankiewicz failed to reach Kennedy with his notes before he stepped to the forefront of a crowded flatbed truck, Adam Walinsky did hand the Senator his frantically composed thoughts. Bobby thanked Walinsky and accepted the draft which he promptly folded and stuffed into a pocket of his overcoat.

For the five minutes that he spoke, “his face gaunt and distressed and full of anguish” recalled television correspondent Charles Quinn, Bobby gripped in his right hand a tightly rolled sheaf of papers on which he had jotted down the skeletal structure of his brief remarks on the desolate drive over, after having dropped a pregnant Ethel off at the hotel, wringing the disregarded sheets with his left hand at various times.

Without preamble or a customary introduction, a visibly distraught Kennedy began by saying, “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” An audible shockwave of torment pulsates throughout the crowd, cries of disbelief, screams of horror. “We can move in that direction (bitterness…hatred…revenge) in greater polarization, filled with hatred toward one another,” he continued. “Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

Struggling against the strangulation of naked misery, Bobby for the first time publicly references his brother’s murder while quelling the “hatred and mistrust” that blacks may be tempted to feel and act upon. “I can only say that I had a member of my own family killed,” he avows with curiously detached phrasing, “but he was killed by a white man.”

In times of personal crisis, Bobby sought the solace and wisdom of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. On stage at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, he honored Jack with a passage from Romeo and Juliet. “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into the stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

This night is no exception and Bobby, somehow effortlessly unifying the emotional with the cerebral, recites these heart-wrenchingly beautiful words from Aeschylus, “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

“It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness, it is not the end of disorder,” concedes Kennedy to the reverently hushed assembly. “But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.” This is met by affirmative cheers and applause and Kennedy closes by revisiting the Greeks and their dedication “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Riots, resulting in thirty-nine deaths, twenty-five hundred injuries, tens of millions of dollars in property damage, and the presence of seventy-five thousand National Guardsmen occurred throughout one hundred and ten cities that night. Indianapolis remained respectfully tranquil.

 

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Martin Luther King, Junior was assassinated almost 47 years ago to this day - on April 4, 1968. But exactly one year before his assassination he gave a very memorable speech – Beyond Vietnam. It was a fascinating speech that discussed America and the Vietnam War. Christopher Benedict explains…

Martin Luther King, Junior in 1964.

Martin Luther King, Junior in 1964.

Call to Conscience

Even to the secular citizen, New York’s Riverside Church is an architectural and historical wonder. Situated on Manhattan’s upper west side, this interdenominational place of worship, conceived and funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., straddles the Hudson River and is mere blocks away from Columbia University. Grant’s Tomb, located at the northern-most tip of Riverside Park, can be found almost directly across Riverside Drive.

Its spiked, ornately carved gothic tower dominates the Morningside Heights skyline and makes it the tallest church in the United States, twenty-fourth in worldwide rankings. The cavernous nave and altar are quite a sight to behold owing to the dozens of vibrant stained-glass windows, low-hanging circular chandeliers, sculpted religious icons, and the massive arrangement of organ pipes. These encircle the pulpit from which Nelson Mandela spoke just four months after his 1990 release from prison on Robben Island, South Africa.

Fidel Castro, Cesar Chavez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, former president Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson (delivering the eulogy at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972) likewise have uttered sage words (a patience and posterior-fatiguing four hours’ worth, in Castro’s case) which have resounded throughout Riverside Church’s hallowed halls.

On April 4, 1967, one year to the day until he would be murdered in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. would issue from this same stage what he already knew would be a controversial and divisive plea to a “society gone mad on war” for “radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam”.

Already derided as an antiquated ‘Uncle Tom’ first by Malcolm X and then by Stokely Carmichael, who was busy preparing the factions of his Black Power movement to congregate as “groups of urban guerillas for our defense in the cities”, King would come under attack not only by black radicals who mistook his non-violent teachings for a kind of manacled pacifism, but by his own constituencies within the Morehouse College alumni, NAACP, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their main point of contention involved what they feared to be Martin’s gradual philosophical shift from civil rights to foreign policy, a concern shared by the country’s ‘moral majority’ who, as it was, had little to no tolerance for King’s dream of an integrated nation and even less, it seemed, for his unsolicited opposition to the administration’s ongoing and escalating military intervention in Southeast Asia.

And why, fretted many of his friends, advisors, and advocates, risk alienating or infuriating Lyndon Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act and publicly called out the Ku Klux Klan, in the process?

Despite his rapidly declining popularity, which was responsible for a prolonged and deepening depression, Martin Luther King nonetheless clung to the unfaltering belief that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.”

 

Time to Break the Silence

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” Dr. King begins somberly.

The pews are filled to capacity, black audience members, in a stark reminder of how far society had yet to go despite the progress previously made, barred from the first several rows. Additional improvised seating proves inadequate, the overflow crowd choking the sidewalk of 120th Street.

“Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy,” he continues. “Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in their surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But,” he insists, “we must move on.”

A preacher by vocation and by nature, King’s reputation and tradition was that of an extemporaneous speaker. This oration would prove to be the lone exception. Drafted, redrafted, and drafted time and again, the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech would ultimately have as much preparation and surgically precise execution devoted to its construction as the very building in which it was recited.

Vincent Harding was its chief architect. It was a prominent role that would plague him with guilt and grief in equal measure one year later. Harding befriended King in 1958, during Martin’s convalescence back home in Atlanta. He had been stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman named Izola Curry during a Harlem book signing for Stride Toward Freedom, leaving him, as he was fond of telling it, “just a sneeze away from death”.

“He and I understood each other, recognized that we were very close to each other on issues having to do with Vietnam, with war and peace, and with the dangers of America becoming an imperialist power in the world,” Harding told Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez in 2008.And so he asked me if I would do a draft of the speech, because he knew that I would not be putting words into his mouth. I would simply be speaking as my friend would want to speak, and that was the way that I went about the task that he asked me to do.”

Shouldering both the burden and the privilege to “speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy”, Martin Luther King was tasked with representing the collective views of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

“This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front,” King stated. “It is not addressed to Russia or to China.” Neither was it an attempt to paint them as “paragons of virtue” nor to delegitimize their suspicion of the United States’ sloppy attempts to color itself as such, virtuous intent betrayed by roughhouse tactics.

Invoking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s motto “To save the soul of America”, Dr. King refused to withhold his denunciation of the nation’s arrogant preference for confrontation over contemplation, specifically to the detriment of the young, the poor, and the black, “crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” 

Compassion, however, must also be extended toward and encompass “the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now.” Otherwise, observed King, “there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless in Vietnam

“They must see America as strange liberators,” said King of the Vietnamese. “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions, the family and the village. Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness.”

He dedicated the bulk of the speech’s middle portion to fleshing out most Americans’ skeletal knowledge of Indochina and clarifying, in the process, our country’s complicity in stitching together the flags of discontent that the Vietnamese had unfurled and which we then sought to shred and scatter in the mud.

Led by Ho Chi Minh, free from Chinese influence, and having “quoted from America’s Declaration of Independence in their own document for freedom”, the Vietnamese proclaimed their sovereignty from beneath the oppression of French and Japanese occupation in 1945. France was keen to recolonize Vietnam and sought to see it through with American-supplied financial aid with the addition of military advisors and weapons.

“It looked as if independence and land reform would come again from the Geneva Agreement,” explained King. “But, instead came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation.”

Soon enough, the U.S. was not content to simply drop propagandist leaflets on the peasants in support of their handpicked dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, and rained down bombs on their hamlets instead. The Vietnamese children were rendered homeless and hopeless, “running in packs on the streets like animals…degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food…selling their sisters to our soldiers…soliciting for their mothers.”

King hoped that the more sophisticated among our soldiers and citizens would recognize and atone for the fact that “we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”

 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Having already drawn upon a passage from Langston Hughes, King would also relate a message written by an unnamed Vietnamese spiritual leader, which bears repeating in full here.

“Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that, in the process, they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

Words that echo loudly today in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Benghazi, and targeted drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Although their source was not disclosed during King’s speech, they in fact stemmed from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. A peace activist, scholar, and writer, he founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University of Saigon and the School of Youth and Social Service, as well as the La Boi publishing house. Thay (or ‘teacher’, as he is commonly known) also established the Engaged Buddhism movement, which aided Vietnamese victims of American carpet bombing and scorched earth policies, and later the Order of Interbeing, a group of laypeople devoted to taking and living according to the Bodhisattva vows, walking the path of the Buddha with mindfulness and compassion for all sentient beings.

Excommunicated by both North and South Vietnam during an extensive tour of the United States and Europe, in the course of which he tirelessly yet fruitlessly implored world leaders to end the war and fronted the Buddhist delegation at the Paris Peace Talks of 1969, Thay would ironically find a new home in France, of all places. There, he would build and lead Plum Village, which grew over time from a simple farmstead to the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western hemisphere, from where he continues to write and conduct retreats.

Thich Nhat Hanh would cross paths with Martin Luther King Jr. during his aforementioned global peace-seeking mission, the civil rights icon so enamored with the Vietnamese monk that he referred to him as “an apostle of peace and non-violence” and personally nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, for which no one was awarded.

 

The Brotherhood of Man

King acknowledged his own 1964 Nobel Peace Prize as “a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances.”

“The Good News was meant for all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative,” he asserted. “What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with them my life?” After all, King correctly diagnosed America’s “comfort, complacency, morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice” as the chief culprits responsible for the festering sores now oozing amongst the “many who feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit.” It stands to reason then, he prognosticates that, “Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.”

King hits his full stride near the end of the speech employing his favored and very effective leitmotif of recurring refrains, this time structured around the thematic foundation of “a true revolution of values.” But not before first tearing down the decaying façade of the present ideological infrastructure built above a nation “approaching spiritual death” with the following words of warning, which may well be the most poignant ever spoken on the subject, by King or any other human being.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

 

Tomorrow Is Today

There is an urgency, not only to Vincent Harding’s written words, but also in Martin Luther King’s bombastic voice, when he conjures the imagery of “an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.” This speaks to the great question of how we wish to be remembered. What legacy we would like to leave behind individually, but even more importantly, as an interconnected society, in which we all have some say in the choice between “non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.”

“If we make the right choice,” King finishes with a flourish, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

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Sources

  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (Warner Books, 2001)
  • Interview with Vincent Harding from Democracy Now! broadcast February 28, 2008
  • Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Riverhead Books 1999)
  • A Call to Conscience documentary, produced by Tavis Smiley for PBS, March 2010 

 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones