Have students divide themselves into two groups: one group that supports King’s decision to speak out against the war, and one group that feels he made an error. Give each group the packet of editorials along with King’s letter to Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) members who have withdrawn their support. Groups should use the letters and articles that support and refute their position to develop as strong an argument as possible. You may have students write an editorial to present to the class or have a less formal presentation where they field questions from the opposing group.
Some questions to consider for the activity:
- Was King’s decision to speak out against the war a departure from his stated philosophical, political, and/or social commitments?
- What relevance did King's role as a clergyman have for his position? What about as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient? What about his role as a civil rights leader?
- Do you believe there was a relationship between the war in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle at home? Why or why not?
- Were there any inconsistencies with King’s stated position on the war in Vietnam and his stated position as a civil rights leader? (Consider the role of nonviolence.)
- What were some of the main criticisms King’s opponents made regarding his statement on the war in Vietnam? What were some of the main arguments made by those defending King’s position?
- What if King had not taken a position on the war in Vietnam? Would it have undermined his stated commitment to nonviolence and social justice, or would it have merely highlighted his commitment to the civil rights movement?
- What role, if any, might King’s race have had to do with how his statement was received?
- Do you believe that moral, religious, and political considerations should be separated if it serves a tactical goal?
- In his letter “Dr. King Backed,” James Bevel states, “Logically, the welfare of non-white peoples in this nation is inextricably linked with the welfare of non-white peoples around the world.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
- What sort of impact do you believe King’s decision to speak out against the war had on the civil rights movement? If you believe it harmed the movement, was it worth it?
- Finally, how are these issues relevant today? Could the case be made that our current foreign policy has implications for domestic policy? How?
Have students read the remainder of “Beyond Vietnam” and complete primary source evaluation. Have students share responses with class.
- "Beyond Vietnam," Address delivered to the clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam, Riverside Church, 4 April 1967
- Editorial Responses to King's Speech
- King’s letter to Southern Christian Leadership Conference
- Worksheet for Analyzing Primary Source Documents