Black religion and Vietnam

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon (listen to it here) he publicly broke ranks with the policies of President Lyndon Johnson and the white liberal establishment (which still largely supported the war) as he condemned American involvement in Vietnam.

King articulated what increasing numbers of Americans were beginning to feel—that Vietnam, civil rights, and economics were deeply interconnected. Just as the policies of Johnson’s Great Society had begun to confront black poverty at home, King observed, the United States began pouring soldiers and resources into Southeast Asia. With the military buildup, commitment to domestic justice and equality faded. For every $53 Washington spent to help a poor person in the United States, Andrew Preston has noted, it spent $500,000 to kill a person in Vietnam.

Moreover, African Americans and other minorities were dying in extraordinarily high proportions in the early years of the war even though they accounted for a small percentage of the population. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King charged, “and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” As a result, Americans faced the “cruel irony” of watching black and white American boys kill and die together in the service of a country “that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” It was a powerful sermon, one that has recently resurfaced in the public consciousness upon the death of its author Vincent Harding.

But King’s sermon did not reflect the opinions of rank-and-file African Americans. In a just-released book entitled American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War, George Bogaski chronicles the fascinating non-response of black evangelicals to King’s speech and the intensifying war in Southeast Asia.

So why did black evangelicals not follow King on this issue? First, like many white evangelicals, considerable numbers of African Americans wanted to focus more on evangelism than politics. Geopolitical peace was certainly desirable, but it had limited spiritual value. “If we win the war in Vietnam, will this be the answer to our problems?” asked a writer in The Star of Zion. “We think not, for there are wars most everywhere, not only in America. The world needs to seek God.” This sounded much like the spiritualized writings of Carl Henry and Billy Graham on Vietnam, and it constrained the possibilities of antiwar activism.

Second, many nurtured a passionate loyalty to President Johnson, a president who had signed the Civil Rights Act (1963) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Black denominations almost universally supported Johnson over Goldwater in 1964. Johnson’s win, explained a writer in The Star of Zion in January 1965, proved that “God is still on the throne.” As president, Johnson approached problems with “energy, candor, and integrity.” After AME bishops visited the White House, they praised him for his reform efforts in the areas of poverty, education, Medicare, housing, and civil rights. Johnson, they wrote, was “one of the greatest champions of human rights of minorities in this century, if not our entire history. “HE DID THE MOST,” declared one editorial.

Johnson was a friend to civil rights, and he was also a Cold War hawk. He pushed hard for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and for troop build-ups in Southeast Asia. African-Americans were loathe to criticize their advocate. King’s advisors warned him about this, telling him that his antiwar speeches were “too advanced for many Negroes and that it did not constitute the widest appeal.” More likely is that many blacks, especially those affiliated with the NAACP, worried that antiwar activism would jeopardize the civil rights struggle. In the end, writes Bogaski, Vietnam led to a “dramatic split between King and the African-American church.” The full ramifications of this split were never realized. Just a year later in 1968, King was shot in Memphis, an awful moment in an awful year that also included the Tet Offensive and the shooting of Robert Kennedy.

It’s a fascinating story told with skill. And there is much more in the Bogaski’s narrative. On a broader level, the book offers a much-needed exploration of theological responses to the Vietnam War that goes beyond the simplistic binary of mainline doves and evangelical hawks. Bogaski ably charts gaps between leadership and laity, revolts of mainline conservatives, debates over methods of dissent, and evangelical opposition to the conflict.

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