The Sixties Civil Rights Movement Vs. Vietnam War

The 1960s were a very turbulent time for the United States of America. This period saw the expansion of the Vietnam War, the assassination of a beloved president, the civil rights and peace movements and the uprising of many of the world’s most influential leaders; known as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

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Over the years, scholars have discussed the correlation between the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. It has been argued that violence happening overseas directly influenced the disturbances seen at home during the mid sixties. Therefore, it can be said that the Vietnam War changed the course of the Civil Rights movement. In turn, this caused some Civil Rights leaders to radically change the course of their words and messages. As the war began to escalate, more and more public announcements were made by Civil Rights movement leaders in opposition to the war. This paper will address the common patterns found among leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as the war escalated. These leaders began to address the issue of civil rights from a broader perspective, bringing international policy into the picture. Moreover, although many of these leaders disagreed on how to approach the essential problem, they continuously agreed on what they described as the “American hypocrisy.”

Several events throughout the mid 1950s sparked the Civil Rights movement creating advocates all across the country. One such event was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which effectively ended racial segregation in public schools. Another example would be in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama. This led to many similar situations, reaching a climax in the Sixties, a decade with leaders and activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and other popular resistance groups. Many of these leaders fundamentally disagreed on how to move the cause forward. Martin Luther King was known for his non-violent protesting approach. This approach was especially prominent in the marches he organized such as the march on Washington. This march climaxed with his “I have a Dream” speech which offered a vision forward where race no longer mattered because integration would be successful. Unlike Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach, Malcolm X declared on several occasions that he is in favor of violence if it meant freedom for the people.

However, as the war overseas in Vietnam began to escalate, these different civil rights leaders were apprehensive as to how to confront the situation. Many feared that by opposing the war, it would take away from their domestic fight. As the war escalated there was a definite impact in the way the movement spoke publicly about themselves and how they would advocate for the people they were serving. It helped bring leaders together on the common idea of the “American hypocrisy,” which determined a great contradiction in their rights as citizens. This contradiction was about the fundamental inability of African Americans to have their voice clearly heard. They were expected to serve in a war to fight for another country’s freedom, yet they still had no freedom in their own country. Christian Appy’s A Working Class War states, “Thus, most of the Americans who fought in Vietnam were powerless, working-class teenagers sent to fight an undeclared war by presidents for whom they were not even eligible to vote.” This reiterates the fact that the war in Vietnam was promoted on the basis that the United States was protecting the rights of the people in South Vietnam. However, some questioned if the government was not offering the same promise to its own people. This oxymoron was the leading debate that several activists held for years and can even be seen as the biggest controversial spark during the Civil Rights movement.

In 1964, Malcolm X gave his most popular speech in front of thousands of people. This speech called, “The Ballot or the Bullet” addresses the crucial year that they found themselves in. During this year, the Vietnam War had not yet met its highest point of escalation, however it was started to be noticed by a larger audience in the general public. Malcolm X, tapping into this awareness, said, “Why, this man, let two or three American Soldiers, who are minding somebody else’s business way over in South Vietnam, get killed, and he’ll send battleships, sticking his nose in their business… this old cracker who doesn’t even have free elections in his own country.” Although the speech did not directly address the war in Vietnam, he used it as a way to further explore the hypocrisy of the American government. He showed that the American government has gotten involved in other countries’ wars while ignoring America’s own problems at home. Malcolm X was one of the first to talk about the concept of American hypocrisy using it as backbone for his “by all means necessary” argument.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not publicly oppose the war until 1965, a year later when the war began to escalate. He began to see a strong correlation with the war and the internal problems they were facing at home. Before publicly speaking about the war, Dr. King advocated for integration, stating the fact that African American rights were human rights. Scholars such as Benjamin T. Harrison from the University of Louisville argued that King was a man of peace who was misunderstood. Meaning that although he was viewed as a pacifist, he was willing to take a stance when necessary. Many of his colleagues criticized him for even mentioning an opposition to the war. They believed that King was mixing two unrelated topics. However, King disagreed and used the full power of the position he found himself in as a Civil Rights movement leader to publicly announce his disapproval of the Vietnam War. It is important to understand the time frame in which King made his first comments; 1965 was a year where thousands of American citizens who had been drafted, were being killed, and the media pulled into the public sphere. One of the biggest controversies was the fact that the men being drafted were usually those who belonged to the lower classes and were often from minority groups.

On March 2nd, 1965, King gave a speech at Howard University where he publicly denounced the US government and called for a negotiated settlement. A few months later, Dr. King said, “I’m not going to sit by and see war escalated without saying anything about it… It is worthless to talk integration if there is no world to integrate in, the Vietnam War must be stopped.” Dr. King’s decision to vocalize his opposition shows that by the time the War escalated, civil rights movement leaders began to change their message regarding Civil Rights. These leaders began to see the ways in which international policies could negatively affect domestic policies. The escalation of the Vietnam war in 1965 began to take away from resources of the Civil Rights movement which had a direct impact on the movement as a whole. Furthermore, the way leaders spoke about the war began to change its course and they began to comment on the bigger picture of the issue they faced.

Martin Luther King Jr. began to see the change that needed to be made in terms of the movement. King believed that the focus of the Civil Rights movement needed to be shifted to the issue of poverty on a national scale. Meaning that the war affected those of the lower class and minorities. With this being said, different scholars have expanded on this topic. Christian Appy says, “America’s most unpopular war was fought primarily by the nineteen-year-old children of waitresses, factory workers, truck drivers, secretaries, firefighters, carpenters, custodians, police officers, salespeople, clerks, mechanics, miners and farmworkers…” This emphasizes that the ones impoverished in the United States were mostly working class groups and minorities, who were being asked to serve for a war they did not ask for. Dr. King declared on several occasions that this war was taking away resources from those of the lower class, in order to protect the citizens of a different country. He showed that the cause for the war and the movement were rooted in government hypocrisy. Given that there was now a new found appreciation for negative domestic effects caused by the war, the leaders of the movement started to be more proactive in vocalizing their opposition to the war.

After two years of being criticized by his different aides and fellow Civil Rights movement supporters, Martin Luther King gave a speech on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City called, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” This speech completely changed the course of the Civil Rights movement, leading other groups to follow. Dr King says, “We were taking the black young men who had been 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.” This radical statement addresses back to the American hypocrisy argument that all Civil Rights movement leaders agreed upon. The escalation of the war made all of these different leaders understand that what they were fighting for abroad, contradicted with what they were fighting for domestically. Therefore, this sudden change in course occurred because of the realization that the war had a direct relationship with Civil Rights advocacy.

As mentioned above, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X disagreed on a regular basis. However, when speaking about the war in regards to the government, they had similar views. Both of their powerful speeches address the fact that the American government was taking resources from their own citizens. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War drained resources from the US economy and drafted men belonging to minority groups to fight for something they didn’t even believe in. Therefore, these leaders denounced Uncle Sam given that support of the war would just lead on to more consequences domestically. For example, Malcolm X said, “No I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy.” This shows his radical approach to the concept of being an American and how he feels victimized by the actions of the government and “Americanism.” This can be compared to Dr. King’s main argument. In his speech he states, “Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.” King shows how the government has used African Americans to further their agenda abroad. Malcolm X and King both denounce the United States government and discuss the idea of a failed American system that could be considered the root of all problems.

As these strong leaders became more vocal about their opposition to the Vietnam War, other civil right movement groups followed. Groups such as the SNCC, NAACP and CORE among others. Although it took these groups a bit longer to become vocal on this topic, they eventually did so when realizing what past leaders were saying about American hypocrisy. SNCC members produced their first uncompromising statement saying, “blacks should not fight in Vietnam for the white man’s freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi.” This quote reiterates what Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were saying, by reinforcing the idea that the Civil Rights movement was now part of a greater international debate. A common pattern can be seen among the statements made by all of these leaders. They felt it was hypocritical for black men to be drafted to fight for freedom while they were not given rights to be free in their own home.

All of these groups joined forces in different ways to criticize the American system.; their message changed given the direct relationship that the war had with the movement. Public voices who supported the movement became vocal as well. Figures such as the famous boxer, Muhammad Ali, became an advocate for the Civil Rights and anti war movements. The impact of the escalation of the war so great that Ali became a symbol of strength for the black communities along with leaders such as Dr. King and Malcolm X. When being called for the draft, Ali said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so called Negro in Louisville are being treated like dogs?” This quotes demonstrates the common pattern that most Civil Rights advocates spoke about. The public recognized Ali for his refusal to conform to white behavioral norms, his rejection of “white” religion and his stand against a white government and military. He was one of the strongest advocates against the draft bringing back the idea that it simply represented America’s failed system and hypocrisy.

Ali famously said, “My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. Shoot them for what?… They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality…” This can be related to what Malcolm X said in terms of not feeling American anymore because they were not given equal rights as their fellow white American citizens. During the mid sixties, the Civil Rights movement began to look at it from a much broader perspective. What Ali and many other were saying had much in common based on the fact that they believed white supremacy abroad was directly affecting them domestically, proving once again that the war needed to be correlated with the movement. Leaders needed to identify how ending the war overseas would benefit the fight for Civil Rights in America. They used Vietnam as a reference of how contradictory the American system was.

Increasingly, the Civil Rights movement leaders and supporters began to develop a sense of racial solidarity with the Vietnamese. Different groups released similar statements that stated their alignment with the Vietnamese people who were living through those atrocities. Supporters of the anti-war movement combined with Civil Rights movement were interviewed. Their statements included quotes such as, “You know, I just saw one of those Vietcong guerillas on TV. He was dark sinned, ragged, poor and angry. I swear, he looked just like one of us.” This speaker identified with the VietCong guerillas based on their dark-skinned physical appearance demonstrating a commonality in oppressed groups. A member of the SNCC movement group said, “our work, particularly in the South, taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens.” This shows how the oppressed citizens are mistreated by the American government overseas as well as at home. These statements can be used to analyze the reasoning behind the sudden change in course and focus of the Civil Rights movement. Several different factors played a role in this, however it can be seen that all Civil Rights leaders who were vocal about the war felt identified with the victims of the war given that they were victims of the same system.

To conclude, the escalation of the Vietnam War clearly brought out similarities among all of the civil rights movement groups. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the main advocate for the anti-war movement given the parallel seen among the war and the movement. All types of activists and leaders were deeply influenced by the war, even though most of them continued with their same ideals and principles. They used the war to change the course of their messages based on the realization that what they were fighting to fit into a much more international spectrum. For example, Dr. King used the war to emphasize a much more broad idea of integration which was the main focus of his work. On the other hand, Malcolm X spoke about the war in order to promote violence. He used the victims of the war in Vietnam to provide an example of a group of people who were fighting for their freedom.

Although Civil Rights movement leaders and advocates sometimes differed in their basic principles, they did agree on the problems that the war caused. They found common ground in the unjust idea that the war represented. Millions of African Americans were not free in their own country, yet they were being sent off overseas to fight for freedom. This interesting contradiction made leaders who had all sorts of different ideologies come together and fight against what they saw as American hypocrisy. As time progressed, all groups found themselves, in a way, fighting for the same ideology. They wanted to break down the American system that put them in this position and hoped for the day where they felt American enough to fight for the freedom of all and not just a determined racial group. As Muhammad Ali once said, “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.” This proves once again that those part of the movement did not need to be forced if they thought they were fighting for something that would be beneficial for all. The escalation of the war made them realize that in order to fight for their rights domestically, they needed to focus on the bigger picture first.

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