Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Great Civil War Centennial Speech

I have a question about Martin Luther King, Jr. for which I can't find a good answer.

Where did Dr. King stand on the American Civil War?

If you search "Martin Luther King" and "civil" you'll get back a million hits about "civil rights" or "not since the Civil War" and if you search "Martin Luther King" and "war" you'll get back a million hits about the Vietnam War.  But nothing specifically about Dr. King's views on the Civil War itself.

It is, of course, absolutely true that Dr. King was America's number one advocate for non-violent protest. And it's indisputably true that Dr. King was deeply opposed to Vietnam.

But it is also true that the occasion of the 50th anniversary of "I Have A Dream" memorialized a speech which a surprising number of people seem to forget begins this way:
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. 
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free...
One of the most famous speeches of the 20th century begins with an explicit call-back to the Civil War -- to the President who waged that war, to the Proclamation that war produced -- and it does so by eloquently appropriating one of the most famous phrases -- "Four Score and Seven Years Ago" -- from the most famous speech of that war.  And from that opening coda until very near the end of his remarks, Dr. King builds his brilliant, elegant, rhetorical temple on the foundation of the fundamental injustice of a government not keeping the promises it made coming out of that war.

I know exactly where Dr. King stood on waste and folly of Vietnam.

I am considerably less confident that I know where Dr. King stood on the bloodiest conflict in America history.

I would genuinely like someone to point me in the direction of some real scholarship on this question, and I figured since I have this blog and all, this would be the quickest way to send up a flare.


Overclock speedy said...


Dr. King was not "non violent" that's something that got changed in history. Along the same lines that we don't talk about him being a socialist.

King was for the threat of violence and the potential use of violence in retaliation. Along those same lines a ton of his problem with the Vietnam War was (justifiably) grounded in the racial and class issues that infect every modern war. King was also pro gun rights.

Ghandi wasn't actually a pacifist either.

To be more clear, violence is a terrible and abhorrent solution, but at times it is the only solution. The cost of this is often most often born by the marginalized and powerless among us, which makes the issue even more worse.

Most intelligent and honest people are capable grasping these nuances and realizing that the use of force is a convoluted situation and rarely a cut and dry type of issue.

It's the ability to understand that, understand that times and people do change, and admit the possibility our viewpoints might be wrong on a specific instance of violence that makes us liberals. Absolutes are for conservatives and idiots.

Overclock speedy said...


And before I get dog piled, I'm not condoning or advocating violence here. Violence is a method and a tool. A dangerous one, should normally be reserved for a last resort, and in most instances should be avoided if possible.

However from a strictly rational standpoint, it's part of who we are and despite what some would insist humanity has managed to solve a lot of things with violence, many of which had to be solved that way.

King had a small arsenal. King was also denied a concealed carry (funny how conservatives were all for gun control at that point). This gets washed over by many on the "pacifism only left".

Anonymous said...

Hey dg,

How about this:

"When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it was not the act of an opportunistic politician issuing a hollow pronouncement to placate a pressure group.

Our truly great presidents were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question. Jefferson with keen perception saw that the festering sore of slavery debilitated white masters as well as the Negro. He feared for the future of white children who were taught a false supremacy. His concern can be summed up in one quotation, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vacillations were facts. In the seething cauldron of ‘62 and ‘63 Lincoln was called the "Baboon President" in the North, and "coward", "assassin" and "savage" in the South. Yet he searched his way to the conclusions embodied in these words, "In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve." On this moral foundation he personally prepared the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and to emphasize the decisiveness of his course he called his cabinet together and declared he was not seeking their advice as to its wisdom but only suggestions on subject matter. Lincoln achieved immortality because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course. No President can be great, or even fit for office, if he attempts to accommodate to injustice to maintain his political balance.

The Emancipation Proclamation shattered in one blow the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South; and guaranteed that no slave-holding class, if permitted to exist in defeat, could prepare a new and deadlier war after resuscitation."

I think it fits with my picture of him - concerned about the reality of conditions for African Americans and the broken promise of America's creed.

(I found this by doing a Google search using: "Martin Luther King" And "Civil War"



ScarabusRedivivus said...

Thoughtful responses here, DG, but I can’t help feeling they exemplify a problem you alluded to in the post: that the question comprises a knot with many different strands twisted and woven together. The particular strand you’re asking about is the Civil War. I can’t point you toward an answer, but I can suggest the steps I’d take in seeking one.

If Dr. King opposed all violence, without exception, then case closed. If he opposed all wars, without exception, case closed. But if considered some wars just or at least necessary, and others not, the case stays open and it’s time to move on to the next phase.

Which wars did he assign to which category, and why? As you alluded, the most obvious example here is the Vietnam War, and the primary text is the address he delivered in Riverside Church. Based on which principles or criteria did he oppose that war? If he had judged the Civil War by those same principles or criteria, then what conclusion would he have reached?

Not very helpful, I know, but it’s the best I can do.

n1ck said...

Non-violent protest is the waging of war against an enemy that has already declared war against you and clearly out-arms you.

If you can't shoot your opponents out of power, you draw attention to their violence and embarrass them so that they lose the support of the people who they give them their power.

War is more than just trying to kill someone of the opposing side. It is trying to replace their governing power/ideology with your own.

Dr. King was a warrior using the only weapon that black people could use without bringing condemnation against them by the white population in general: victim-hood (being a victim isn't a bad thing that you let happen to you or that you further by being a sad panda, no matter how the word gets used today by various groups).

blader said...

We know that on a couple of occasions MLK referenced the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the two great documents of America.

We should infer that MLK would have understood that one of Lincoln's main purposes for the EP was to generate more negro soldiers for the Union army. If this was to be a war to end slavery, let the ex-slaves sign up for the fight. Therefore, I would imagine MLK would have needed a dimmer view of the EP if he believed the civil war should not have been fought.

Also, we know that MLK viewed the Vietnam war mostly as an issue of injustice, as an issue of the people of Vietnam being oppressed by war waged by a violent superpower. His doctrine of non-violence with respect to war flowed from injustice, not from war per se.

I just don't think there is any reason to expect that MLK would have preached against the Civil War. In that case, you would need to imagine that MLK viewed the Union as aggressors....which would pretty much put him in bed with the rebels.

Slavery, not the civil war, was the great injustice of that time.

blader said...

"So man's proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good."

His Nobel Peace Prize lecture

I think you could interpret MLK's remarks above to suggest he thought there was a time when war could be 'just'....and surely the Civil War fell into that category.