|King giving his "Beyond Vietnam" speech in April 1967|
In early June 1967, Ethel Payne covered a speech King gave at the Capital Press Club annual gathering in Washington. The club had been created 24 years ealier because the National Press Club barred blacks from membership.
There had been considerable debate among the Capital Press Club leaders about having King speak. In April he had come out against the Vietnam War. Since then many of his movement colleagues, including the NAACP, had disassociated themselves from any effort to connect their rights movement with the peace movement. His allies in the white press deserted him, as well. The New York Times said that by fusing race and peace King had done a disservice to both causes. The Washington Post said that his stance had diminished his usefulness to his cause and country.
Even Payne's newspaper, the Defender, joined the chorus of critics. First, it did so by putting Payne’s account of how GIs viewed the war on the front page a week after King’s speech. In her article, she reported that ninety-nine percent of the men she interviewed while in Vietnam a few weeks earlier supported the war. “Negro soldiers, “ she wrote, “tend to equate the struggle of the Vietnamese people with the civil rights movement at home.” Eleven days later, the editorial page made the Defender’s views clear. Saying that King “had been swept along by the prevailing tide of hysteria against the war in Vietnam,” the paper predicted, “he will be a shepherd without flock.”
“He knew he was under siege for his views,” said Payne who sat not far from him at the club dinner. “As a Negro who knows that the focus of the pro and cons of the war are centered on the American Negro now more than ever, he must have felt that this dinner meeting of the Capital Press Club was a particularly good forum for expressing himself.”
King began by recalling the halcyon days of the movement in the 1950s and early 1960s and its great legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. “Now, we are moving in a transition period, moving from one phase of the revolution to another,” he said. “We are in a struggle for genuine equality.” The early gains, such as opening hotels, transportation, and restaurants, were won at a “bargain rate,” King continued. Finding jobs for Negroes and eradicating the slums lie ahead. “By this time,” said Payne, “the audience was so quiet one could have heard a mouse running over velvet.”
In his inimitable slow and rhythmic cadence, King continued. “There must be a radical re-distribution of economic power,” he said. Whenever the government funds a poverty project in Mississippi, it is labeled creeping socialism. “In this country there is socialism for the rich,” King said. “Only the poor are cast out into the unproductive world of free enterprise.”
“By this time,” said Payne, “the audience had come alive and the applause was at steady intervals, but a hush fell again as Dr. King approached the third phase of his speech on the subject of war.” Without mincing words, King repeated his criticism of the war and claimed that women and children have been brutalized and others have been victims of napalm. Charges, that Payne claimed in her coverage of the speech were unsubstantiated and “indicative of the weak spot in the King logic.”
But King was not done. “To those who say, why don’t you stick to civil rights and leave the peace issue alone, I say, I refuse to be limited or segregated in my moral concern.” The applause was deafening, said Payne. In her eyes King, the dissenter, had won over the crowd. “When he finished there was a standing ovation and it was clear to the hawks and the doves that ‘the conscience of America’ had spoke clear and firmly.”