Today I’m going to transition just a bit from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and sermons to examine a pivotal television appearance he made in 1967. In this remarkable interview, he discusses with NBC News’ Sander Vanocur his fears and concerns about the direction of the nation in the four years since he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I decided to write about this television appearance from Dr. King because some of his remarks caught fire on Twitter—many people, even those who have often decried the “Safe” MLK we see every year on his birthday, stated they never saw this interview with King before.
King’s shift to the Left was well-documented by August 1967. In April of that year he gave his now famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at New York City’s Riverside Church. While King had not yet announced his Poor People’s Campaign, he was close to doing so. Meanwhile, he had already been attacked by numerous liberals in the media for straying too far from civil rights and into arenas of policy—such as Vietnam—that even some of his closest allies felt was beyond his purview.
At the same time, King also expresses ambivalence about how far the gains of the Civil Rights Movement went. Without economic development and investment from the federal government, he argued, there was no way to ensure that African Americans could afford to buy the hamburger at the lunch counter they just desegregated. This was part of a larger argument among African American activists about where to take the Civil Rights Movement next. Keep in mind that the famous 1965 essay from Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics,” carries with it a sense of urgency precisely because Rustin and others are trying to figure out how to address problems such as black unemployment and equal opportunity in the workplace.
It’s also important to consider how King’s on-screen appearance was part of his intervention into this debate. As I’ve written elsewhere, 1967 was a watershed year in African American political thought. The rise of Black Power, the white backlash on display in the 1966 midterm elections, and the continued escalation of the Vietnam War gave intellectuals concerned with African American freedom much to grapple with as the year pressed on. Television appearances such as this one were King trying to tease out his political philosophy during a volatile time in American history.
The new edited collection, To Shape a New World by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry shows that we should take seriously King as a political thinker and philosopher. In the speeches I’ve highlighted so far, and in the interview discussed today, King certainly shows himself to be unafraid of publicly debating political philosophy and public policy in a hostile political climate. King as an intellectual—which he needed to be, to juggle the various factions within the Civil Rights Movement and the broader American left—is a hallmark of 1960s intellectual history that scholars such as Shelby, Terry, and Richard King continue to wrestle with. His interaction with the public through television and his book, Where Do We Go From Here, was King’s way of sparking intellectual debate and, more importantly, political action.