KING AT RIVERSIDE CHURCH
by Reverend Richard R. Fernandez
It is strange the way things happen sometimes. Sometimes we cannot even see the “tipping point” until it is right in front of us. As dramatic and important as President Lyndon Johnson’s brief speech announcing he would not seek reelection because of his unpopularity and immense emotional stress caused by his Vietnam policies was, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech from Riverside Church of April 4, 1967 was an even more crucial and game-changing moment in the nation as it wrestled with the war issue. Dr. King’s journey to the church that cool Tuesday evening in April was a winding one just as the aftermath generated a sense of institutional trauma into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In February of 1967 plans were being developed for a large anti-war protest at the United Nations on April 15. The New York Avenue Peace Parade Committee and the Mobilization to End the War were working together in the planning of the event. Jim Bevel, a one time SCLC staff member, was a key leader for the Mobilization and he had his own unique way of empowering or scaring others into supporting his views. (In preparation for this big demonstration Bevel met with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a Professor at Hebrew Union Seminary and a Co-Chair of Clergy and Laity Concerned, that he had had a vision. God had told him, Bevel said, that the peace movement should fill a ship of peace advocates, sail it to Vietnam and invade/reclaim the country for peace!)
It was Bevel who approached Dr. King to be one of the speakers at the April demonstration. In these kinds of Vietnam War demonstrations there were typically fifteen to twenty speakers and as many as ten different nationally known musicians that would perform at such events. Some staff at SCLC and among SCLC advisors were concerned that King’s message would get lost in the midst of the many, many speeches.
But King’s message getting lost was far from what really concerned his staff and advisor’s. They were concerned with three issues. In order of importance these issues were: Mixing or tying together the Civil Rights and anti-war movements would be a disaster for the civil rights movement; speaking out against the war would divide SCLC and have significant impact on its fund raising capabilities; it would threaten to dissolve King’s and SCLC’s access to the White House which had taken considerable time and imagination to develop. In the minds of many inside SCLC, the fact that it was Bevel who had asked King to speak was an added reason for King to reject the request,
In the early part of March King consulted with staff and key advisors in the New York City area about the UN protest. There was little support for his participation. One advisor pointed to the fact that Arnold Johnson, a member of the Communist Party, was on the planning committee and Mobilizations letterhead. Another feared violence at the event.
King listened and listened.
Back in Atlanta, on March 14 King informed his advisors and staff he was going to participate. From King’s and SCLC’s perspective their next concern was to ensure that King’s message did not get lost among all the other speeches on April 15. According to Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch, King’s top aide, Andrew Young managed to get an agreement from Bevel and the Mobilization that King would speak first and leave early” in order to avoid being associated with any of the more radical individuals and/or statements made from the platform.
Young then called Dr. John Bennett, President of Union Seminary and also Co-Chair of Clergy and Laity Concerned and agreed that Dr. King would give a lecture in the seminary chapel a few days in advance of the April 15 event. At Bennett’s suggestion Young called me so that we could, together, work out the details for King’s appearance. Young and I knew each other a little bit. When he called and explained what was going on I immediately understood the politics of what he said. I had and would continue to be an active planner and participant in a number of Mobilization efforts to end the war.
On the other hand, when Young mentioned King speaking at the Union Chapel I had some misgivings. King, the Vietnam War and the chapel…two big items and one small venue didn’t go together. I said, “How about Riverside Church instead?” There was just a split moment of silence and he asked, “Do you think we can get it?” I wasn’t sure but said I could try pointing out that King and the issue might scare the church, Bennett’s endorsement would be a big influence for a positive decision.
Young and I spoke about possible dates and then he suggested having others on the platform and speaking with King. He didn’t say it but I understood that if the politics on the stage at the April 15 were a mite scary, Young was envisioning a platform for King at Riverside Church that would give him positive cover. He suggested that I invite Bennett and Heschel and he would invite Henry Steele Commager, a pre-eminent history professor from Amherst College, to respond to Dr.King’s address.
The next couple of days were busy ones for me. We were able to secure Riverside Church on the evening of April 4, one of the dates on which Young and I had agreed. One my board members suggested that I call an Episcopal layman in New Jersey who he said was a “real professional press person.” I needed press help and when I called Fred Sontag he immediately said he’d pitch in and help with one condition: we had to have King’s speech three days in advance in order to distribute to the press around the country prior to the speech being given (this was all pre fax and pre computer time and everything had to be mailed). This was all new ground for me and I told Sontag I’d make sure we had the speech in time.
Young and I were easily able to secure Bennett, Heschel and Commager (he would pay his own way back from England where he was on sabbatical). Young also agreed with Fred Sontag’s stipulation which he seemed to understand better than I did.
Sontag was a real pro. Before the speech arrived (we had no idea it was there would be two authors) we had purchased and addressed to all the national media the large brown envelopes for the press release and speech. Fred actually drafted an outline of the release. We were going to mail to more than 500 press outlets, via overnight mail, a press release and a full copy of king’s speech. News outlets would be free to release the material at midnight on the evening of the event.
We received the King speech in two parts: the main part was written by Vincent Harding, of Spellman College and John Maguire of Wesleyan contributed an important piece around the draft and the right of conscience. When we received the speech it was obvious in a few sections that someone other than Harding was the writer. Fred and I, but mostly Fred, did some modest editing of the speech and Fred filled in the already outlined press release. With the help of Union student Barry Johnson, we reproduced the speech, press release, stuffed everything inside of envelopes, affixed stamps and delivered all 500 packets to the central post office in New York City at 2 A.M. on April 2.
King, Young and others from SCLC arrived in New York City in the early afternoon of April 4.and came directly to a press conference at the Overseas Press Club. It was Sontag’s idea to have the press conference in advance of King’s speech, although there was an April 4 12 P.M. embargo on the press conference itself. Sontag helped me realize that the longer King was in town for this speech, and Fred seemed to realize this from the beginning, the momentum and tension would increase very quickly. Trying to have a press conference immediately before the event would feel too crammed and attempting an after the event press conference would be impossible. Sontag’s understood all of this – I was running to catch up with this media pro.
King arrived with Andy Young at Union Seminary for a dinner with Bennett, Heschel, about twenty members of the Clergy and Laity board. At the press conference I handed King and Young one of our press packets. At the dinner table King pulled out the speech that had been prepared by Harding and Maguire and, with pen in hand, quickly scanned and made a few marks or notes down the side of the page. This occupied him for less than five minutes after which he put the speech back into his inside coat pocket.
Riverside Church was packed and electric in anticipation. Only later did I learn that were hundreds of people who couldn’t get into the event. Phil Scharper, another of our Co-Chairs, a Catholic layman, and the CEO of Sheed and Ward Publishers, was the master of ceremonies. After welcoming all, he introduced King. Over the next forty minute or so I listened in amazement. One would have thought that King had spent long hours writing and practicing the speech. Even more important, it was to become a tipping point in the anti war movement and, over the next several months as a result, generate a sea change in increased public opposition to the war.
Following a period of standing applause, Bennett, Heschel and Commager made brief and thoughtful responses to King’s remarks. However, by every measurement, it was King’s night. Next to his memorable “We Shall Overcome” speech at the March on Washington in 1964, his address at Riverside was his most remarkable. Some of us believe that it was even more important as it pointed toward the future task of dealing with racism, poverty and militarism.
Remarkable? That is not quite how others saw it.
Thanks to Fred Sontag, we had done an “excellent” job with the press. The primary aim of the Riverside Church initiative was to get Dr. King’s anti-war views into the public square as clearly as possible before his speaking engagement at the U.N. on April 15. That mission was accomplished. On April 5, 1967 Dr. King was blasted from east to west across the country .by newspapers, columnists, and TV and radio news. He was called a traitor, stupid for mixing the civil rights and anti-war movement together, a communist and the outrage went on and on. The only newspaper that gave any hint of understanding King, that we were able to identify through our Sontag-arranged press clipping service, was the Nashville Tennessean In an April 5 editorial they said that one would expect Dr. King, as a person who was committed to non-violence, to be against the war. We should not be surprised.
More chilling from King’s perspective was the way in which leaders from several national civil rights organizations turned on him. They did not want to see the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement connected. Their opposition had less to do with their individual opinions about the War in Vietnam and more to do with what they foresaw as a strategic mess and a potential fund raising catastrophe. King did speak at the May protest at the UN and his speech received only modest coverage.
A little over a week after the event I received a call from Andy Young. He wanted to know if Clergy and Laity Concerned would want to have Dr. King as one of its Co-Chairs. I tried to stay calm during the call and agreed to get back to him. It took less than a day for Clergy and Laity co-chairs to affirm Dr. King being named as a co-chair. He was able to attend two board meetings and a national gathering of the organization to protest the war in Washington. He was assassinated one year to the day after his speech at Riverside Church.