With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., had to determine what direction he was subsequently to pursue. After all, the previous year, he was able to celebrate the enactment of the accommodations bill; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 theoretically eliminated segregation known as Jim Crow in public places and outlawed racial discrimination and other oppressive xenophobia in the body politic. Whereas it did not eliminate bias and prejudice, it gave recourse to those treated unfairly because of their background or identity to file for a redress of their grievances in a court of law.
Eventually, King began to focus on the socioeconomic disadvantages of African Americans and ventured into the northern cities of the United States to tackle poverty and unemployment and their ramifying effects. While he was contemplating a move to Chicago for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s next campaign, his ears began to pique over the concerns his wife, Coretta, expressed concerning the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of U.S. participation in that battle. Coretta had already begun making some public references to our involvement there. King himself was less vocal about the crisis because of his hope that the administration’s War on Poverty would begin to manifest some dividends.
During this period of time, King received an unexpected letter from a Buddhist monk born in Vietnam over the terrible strife in his native land. Thich Nhat Hanh averred in that letter his appreciation for the nonviolent direct-action work that King had prosecuted and evinced over the past ten years. He believed that King’s visceral aversion to violence and his conciliatory way of life would help in decrying the destruction occurring in Vietnam. His admiration for King was self-evident, and the latter reciprocated the appreciation. Thus, a genuine relationship of mutual respect began.
The two of them were members of the pacifistic organization known as the Fellowship for Reconciliation. Nhat Hanh believed that their shared interests in the peaceful resolution of conflict could empower others to protest and demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. They were able to meet the following year. Nhat Hanh’s agreement with the nonviolent struggle for human rights helped to embolden King to pepper his speeches with references to that unwinnable war and its deleterious effects on the efforts to eradicate poverty in the most affluent nation in the world.
In January of 1967, King traveled to Jamaica for rest as well as to devote concentrated time on his new book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? While at the airport, he picked up some magazines, one of which was Ramparts. In it, there was an article by William Pepper called “The Children of Vietnam.” Pictures of dead children in mothers’ arms and burned bodies from napalm shocked King to his core. As his friend, Bernard Lee, put it, King could not eat upon seeing it and vowed at that very moment to do whatever he could to end the internecine battlefront responsible for such horror.
Soon thereafter, King became more deliberate about his opposition to the war—despite the negative reactions by members of the SCLC, other African American civil rights leaders, and the media. He could not resist the beckoning cries of Coretta, Hanh, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Rev. James Bevel to take the stage to rail against the travesty in Vietnam. Consequently, when he received an invitation from Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam to speak out against the war at the Riverside Church in New York City, he unhesitatingly accepted. Precisely a year before he was assassinated, King delivered his speech at that hallowed sanctuary entitled, “A Time to Break Silence.”
Among some others, Nhat Hanh greatly influenced King in this new venture. They resonated with each other’s quest for peace and the search for the beloved community. As a past recipient of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, King went against protocol and strongly encouraged the Nobel Committee to award Nhat Hanh in 1967. Perhaps because of the tensions involved with the international community over Vietnam, the members of the selection committed demurred and did not even grant a prize to anyone that year!
Although King was an ordained Baptist minister and Nhat Hanh a Buddhist monk, their religious differences did not alienate them from one another. As a matter of fact, they found harmony in their shared ultimate goal of a more peaceful society and world. Nhat Hanh was inspired by the nonviolent strategies of King and his embodiment of the teachings of Jesus; and King embraced Nhat Hanh like he did Mohandas Gandhi—considering the latter to be a great soul, the Mahatma, and the former to be a personification of the Buddha, i.e., a bodhisattva (an enlightened, saintly individual who stays around to eliminate human suffering).
They shared an ecumenical spirit severely lacking in our world today among divergent religious adherents. We have much to learn from the Prince of Peace and the Father of Mindfulness.