Written by Anthony Siracusa, University of Colorado Boulder

____

On July 2, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. stood behind President Lyndon Baines Johnson as the Texan signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although not the first civil rights bill passed by Congress, it was the most comprehensive.

King called the law’s passage “a great moment … something like the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.” Johnson recognized King’s contributions to the law by gifting him a pen used to sign the historic legislation.

A year later, as Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, King again joined the president for the occasion.

But by the start of 1967, the two most famous men in America were no longer on speaking terms. In fact, they would not meet again before King fell to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.

King was foremost a minister who pastored to a local church throughout his career, even while he was doing national civil rights work. And he became concerned that his political ally Johnson was making a grave moral mistake in Vietnam. Johnson quickly escalated American troop presence in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000 in 1965. And by 1968, more than a half a million troops were stationed in the Southeast Asian nation.

As I write in my 2021 book “Nonviolence Before King,” the Baptist preacher had been on a “pilgrimage to nonviolence” for years. And by 1967, he was a radical apostle of Christian nonviolence.

King called on the United States to “be born again” and undergo a “radical revolution of values.” King believed that Jim Crow segregation and the war in Vietnam were rooted in the same unjust ethic of race-based domination, and he called on the nation to change its ways.