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A 'fearless' Martin Luther King brought anti-war message to Kleinhans in '67

Buffalo saw an evolving Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak out against the Vietnam War in Buffalo, less than five months before he was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday.

The civil rights leader came to Kleinhans Music Hall on Nov. 9, 1967, months after first linking the growing anti-war movement to the civil rights movement.

"I must honestly say, even as those who do not agree, that I'm afraid the national administration is more concerned about winning what I consider an ill-considered and unjust war in Vietnam than winning the war against poverty right here at home," King said during his Kleinhans speech.

King first made that connection in an April 4 speech in New York City's Riverside Church, exactly one year to the day before he was killed. It was a controversial stand taken by the minister, drawing widespread criticisms from newspapers, including The New York Times, and politicians and even other civil rights leaders who feared alienating President Lyndon B. Johnson. But it was a moral issue King said he could no longer ignore.

The message he gave that day still resonates just as strongly today with some of the people who were in attendance as when they heard it over a half-century ago.

East Side resident George K. Arthur, who attended, said the civil rights leader's stance against the war was too controversial for many black ministers in Buffalo who stayed away that night.

They didn't want to be associated with King, Arthur said.

"It was his position on Vietnam, and the fact he was being targeted by Edgar Hoover and the FBI and others as being a 'Communist' and 'anti-American' that kept them and other people of color away who should have been there," Arthur said. "They were afraid to be seen with him because of his anti-war position."

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King spoke on "The Future of Integration" for 66 minutes in the music hall. He noted at the outset how much he appreciated the escort provided by the Buffalo Police Department.

"Last week, I was being escorted to the Birmingham County Jail by police officers," King said. "I can assure you this was a much more refreshing atmosphere."

King's speech came as social movements for change were challenging societal norms and tearing down doors.

The Black Power Movement, begun the year before, was heating up. The hippie-ish counterculture was in full swing.

Less than three weeks earlier, more than 100,000 people protested in Washington D.C., including more than 30,000 outside the Pentagon in an effort to halt the war.

Bruce Beyer was one of the protesters in Washington who stood on the steps of the Justice Department and returned his draft card to Attorney General Ramsey Clark. To avoid induction he took sanctuary in the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue, where he would become known as one of the Buffalo Nine.

"The connection King made between the civil rights and the anti-war movements was just so unheard-of," Beyer said. "So many people in the anti-war movement came out of the civil rights struggle, and it was disappointing not to see it reflected in Martin Luther King's earlier years.

"When he made those connections, it was validating, especially because we weren't hearing that from our parents or most commentators," Beyer said. "It was really important."

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During his speech in Buffalo, King chronicled some of the gains won by the civil rights movement, including the election two days earlier of black mayors in Cleveland and Gary, Ind.

The civil rights leader talked about the legacy of slavery, the persistence of segregation and poverty and the resistance to full equality in the South and the North, too.

He also called for federal programs, even a "Marshall Plan" – to address the pervasive poverty that gripped black communities.

At one point, King also talked about perceptions of black people, including language that painted associations with "white" as positive and "black" as negative.

"The language has made it so that a white lie is just better than a black lie," King said. "If somebody goes wrong in the family, strays away from that that is high and noble, you don't call him a white sheep. He's the black sheep of the family."

King waited until the last 10 minutes of his speech to bring up the Vietnam War.

"I've watched the war destroy the Geneva Accord," King said that day. "I've watched that war and our involvement in it leave our nation morally and politically isolated in the world. There is not a single major ally of the United States of America that would dare send its troops to Vietnam.

"So we find ourselves morally isolated, our allies in peace and war not with us," he said.

He also condemned "the military-industrial complex" President Eisenhower, he noted, had warned against.

After the speech ended, Arthur accompanied King to the airport, where he was headed to London. With them were policeman Floyd Edwards, Marian Bass, the lone black woman on the Buffalo police force, politician Arthur Eve and Bernard Charles, King's aide-de-camp.

Martin Luther King Jr. at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo on Nov. 9, 1967. (Photo courtesy of George K. Arthur)

While waiting to board the plane, Arthur said a more relaxed King loosened his tie and "shot the breeze."

Bass and King went to historic black colleges in Georgia – she attended Morris Brown College, he went to Morehouse College – and Bass asked King in the car why he never asked her to dance when the schools had socials together. "I didn't know you, daughter," she recalled him saying, chuckling at the memory.

Bass, who said King "was my hero," remembers telling King how there were only 11 black police officers in Buffalo and that they wanted to see more minorities and women on the force.

"He said whatever you do, do it peacefully," Bass recalled. "He was a true person of peace, and a nice person."

Arthur said he cherishes the time spent in the car and at the airport with King.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime," he said. "To go to the airport and sit with him in a casual conversation was something I never thought was going to happen."

Also in Kleinhans that day was James Heck, whose father, a Baptist minister, was a strong supporter of King's. The Buffalo speech was the third time Heck heard King speak, including a speech in Rochester and the famous speech at the March on Washington.

"I knew I was walking in history," Heck said after listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech.

Heck said he remembered King addressing the war in Kleinhans.

"That was quite a break," he said, referring to a break from liberals who aligned themselves with the Johnson administration. "Unlike so many men of the cloth, he spoke fearlessly and truthfully. He was just a fearless individual who lived under the threat of death every single day."

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Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of King's death, a labor and community march will be held at 4:30 p.m. to commemorate the sanitation strike that King was in Memphis to resolve. The WNY Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, the Buffalo Branch of the NAACP and the City of Buffalo are among the sponsors.

The event will begin at Antioch Baptist Church, 1327 Fillmore Ave., before marching down Fillmore to Martin Luther King Jr. Park and reassembling in front of the MLK statue.

King was felled by an assassin's bullet while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel after giving a speech the night before. James Earl Ray was convicted of the killing, but the assassination has always been shrouded in controversy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1979 King was a "probable" victim of a conspiracy.

King, near the end of his speech, made a declaration as if to answer his critics who thought he had gone too far by speaking out against the Vietnam War.

"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither faith nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right," King said.

King finished his Buffalo speech with the flowing oration he was famous for as the crowd responded with a standing ovation:

"With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children all over this nation – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We are Free At Last.' "

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