Dan Rather warns of sanitizing Martin Luther King's radical anti-war message and demand for economic fairness
Dan Rather (Photo: screen capture)

In a post commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., veteran newsman Dan Rather cautioned that the mainstream acceptance of the civil rights leader could minimize the way the world saw him at the time of his death.


"King is now spoken of with hushed and nearly universal acclaim, but this has deadened the radicalism of King's message," Rather wrote on Facebook. "We must remember that King was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. The clarity of his mission for justice was not welcome in many corridors of power. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity of racial healing and inclusion."

Rather recalled the sermons that King preached using stirring rhetoric to demand economic fairness and peace.

"I believe that many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans would be singing different tunes if King was still actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed," Rather wrote.

To mark another year since the death, Rather sought to mark the day by citing a chapter later in King's life that he said is too often overlooked. He cited his book What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, harkening back to a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York where the normally hopeful King spoke about pessimism of Vietnam.

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” King said. “...We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Rather's book noted that King preached about government funds being spent on bombs instead of on the needy. He addressed the "uneven burden of military service between the rich and the poor, and about the institutionalization of violence at the heart of all wars." But he also described the Vietnamese people viewing the U.S. as an occupier. He compared the use of napalm with the tactics of Nazi Germany.

“What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?," King said.

"I was not in the pews that evening, but I remember reading the press coverage and feeling a deep ache in my heart," Rather wrote. "The thought occurred that perhaps King had gone too far. He might have gotten a standing ovation from his antiwar audience, but the larger response to the speech was highly negative. The New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Dr. King’s Error” that suggested, in an observation echoed by many commentators and even some of King’s allies, that the civil rights leader should have kept his focus on racial justice instead of war."

Rather argued that King saw the two issues linked. In a declassified recording of King and his friend Stanley Levison, King remained dedicated to his message.

“I figure I was politically unwise but morally wise. I think I have a role to play which may be unpopular,” King said.

Rather noted the quote is "as elegant a definition of dissent as you are likely to find."

Sanitizing King's speeches is a mistake, according to Rather, because it ignores the complexities of the times.

"King had exhorted his audience 'to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism' to 'a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.' I like the phrases 'smooth patriotism' and 'firm dissent' because fighting for justice is rarely smooth and dissent requires steely resolve.'"

Read the full take below: