By Reverend Richard R. Fernandez
[Reverend Richard Fernandez is a minister in the United Church of Christ. His entire 45 year ministry has been focused on peace and justice issues.]
As the Executive Director of Clergy and Laity Concerned, I was the organizer of Dr. King’s address at Riverside Church. I thought reflecting on that experience might be an important contribution and my way of honoring King’s legacy.
Over the next four years there will be great challenges for the peace and justice movement across the United States. I thought telling the story – the context – of King’s speech might be of value to organizers and activists moving forward. Whatever events or actions we may be involved in during the next period of time, the process of organizing for King’s appearance at Riverside Church offers some clues of how we might handle rejection and differences while at the same time appreciating the kind of trust, collaboration and risk that fueled this important effort.
In early 1967 Dr. King was invited by the Mobilization to End the War to speak of what was to be a huge peace demonstration outside of the United Nations on April 15. This invitation was to throw King, SCLC and many of King’s closest advisors into three months of bickering and controversy. Many who supported King (including his father) and the rights movement were fearful his message would get lost on a platform of too many speakers.
But King’s message getting lost was far from what really concerned his staff and advisor’s. They were concerned with three issues. In order of importance these issues were: Mixing or tying together the Civil Rights and anti-war movements would be a disaster for the civil rights movement; speaking out against the war would divide SCLC and have significant impact on its fund raising capabilities; it would threaten to dissolve King’s and SCLC’s access to the White House which they had spent years in developing.
In March there was a critical meeting in New York among key SCLC staff, donors and a few leading anti war activist to discuss and advise King about his potential participation in the UN protest. There was little support for his participation. One advisor pointed to the fact that Arnold Johnson, a member of the Communist Party, was on the planning committee and Mobilizations letterhead. Another feared violence at the event.
King listened and listened.
Back in Atlanta and after more consultation King, on March 14, told his board and staff he was going to participate in UN protest. From King’s and SCLC’s perspective their next concern was to ensure that King’s message did not get lost among all the other speeches on April 15. According to Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch, King’s top aide, Andrew Young managed to get an agreement from Mobilization that King would “speak first and leave early” in order to avoid being associated with any of the more radical statements made from the platform.
Young then called Dr. John Bennett, President of Union Seminary and also Co-Chair of Clergy and Laity Concerned and together they agreed that Dr. King would give a lecture in the seminary chapel a few days in advance of his speech at the April 15 event. At Bennett’s suggestion Young called me so that we could, together, work out the details for King’s appearance. Young and I knew each other a little bit. When he called and explained what was going on I immediately understood the politics of what he said.
On the other hand, when Young mentioned the idea of King speaking at the Union Chapel I had some misgivings. King and the Vietnam War at the Union Chapel? I thought the venue too small. I said, “How about Riverside Church instead?” There was just a split moment of silence and he asked, “Do you think we can get it?”
I wasn’t sure but said I could try, pointing out that while King and the issue might scare the church, Bennett’s endorsement, as a member of the congregation, would be a big influence for a positive decision. In addition, King had preached at the church just a year earlier.
Young and I spoke about possible dates and then he suggested having other speakers on the platform with King. He didn’t say it but I understood that if the politics on the stage at the April 15 were a mite scary, Young was envisioning a platform for King at Riverside Church that would give him positive moral and political cover. He suggested that I invite Clergy and Laity Co-Chairs, Bennett and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and he would invite Henry Steele Commager, a pre-eminent history professor from Amherst College, to respond to Dr.King’s address.
The next couple of days were busy ones for me. We were able to secure Riverside Church for the evening of April 4, one of the dates on which Young and I had agreed. One of my board members suggested that I call an Episcopal layman in New Jersey who he said was a “real professional press person.”
I needed press help and when I called Fred Sontag he immediately said he’d pitch in and help on one condition: we had to have King’s speech in our office three days in advance in order to distribute it to the press around the country prior to the speech being given (this was all pre fax and pre computer time and everything had to be mailed). This was all new ground for me and I told Sontag I’d make sure we had the speech in time.
Young and I were easily able to secure Bennett, Heschel and Commager (he would pay his own way back from England where he was on sabbatical). Young also agreed with Fred Sontag’s stipulation about having the speech early which he seemed to understand better than I.
Sontag was a real pro. Before the speech arrived, we addressed to all the national media the large brown envelopes for the press release and speech. Fred actually drafted an outline of the release. We were going to mail to more than 500 press outlets, via overnight mail, a press release and a full copy of king’s speech. News outlets would be free to release the material at midnight on the evening of the event.
We received the King speech which was largely written by Vincent Harding, of Spelman College, with an important contribution from Al Lowenstein. Sontag and I, but mostly Fred, integrated the two contributions and did some modest editing of the document. Fred filled in the already outlined press release. We stuffed everything inside of envelopes, affixed stamps and delivered all 500 packets to the central post office in New York City at 2 A.M. on April 2.
King, Young and others from SCLC arrived in New York City in the early afternoon of April 4 and came directly to a press conference at the Overseas Press Club. It was Sontag’s idea to have the press conference in advance of King’s speech, although there was an April 4 12 A.M. embargo on the press release itself.
Sontag helped me realize that the longer King was in town for this speech, and Fred seemed to realize this from the beginning, the momentum and tension would increase very quickly. Trying to have a press conference immediately before the event would feel too crammed and attempting an after the event press conference, late in the evening, would be impossible. Sontag understood all of this – I was running to catch up with this media pro.
King arrived with Andy Young at Union Seminary for a dinner with Bennett, Heschel, about twenty members of the Clergy and Laity board. At the press conference I handed King and Young one of our press packets. Later, seated at the dinner table at Union Seminar, King pulled out the speech and, with pen in hand, quickly scanned it and made a few marks or notes down the side of the page. This occupied him for less than five minutes after which he put the speech back into his inside coat pocket.
Riverside Church was packed and electric in anticipation. Only later did I learn that were hundreds of people who couldn’t get into the event. Phil Sharper, another of our Clergy and Laity Co-Chairs, a Catholic layman, and the CEO of Sheed and Ward Publishers, was the master of ceremonies. After welcoming all, he introduced King. Over the next forty minutes I listened in amazement. One would have thought that King had spent long hours writing and practicing the speech. Even more important, it was to become a tipping point in the anti war movement and, over the next several months as a result, we saw a sea change in increased public opposition to the war.
Following a period of standing applause, Bennett, Heschel and Commager made brief and thoughtful responses to King’s remarks. However, by every measurement, it was King’s night. Next to his memorable “We Shall Overcome” speech at the March on Washington in 1964, his address at Riverside was his most remarkable. Some of us believe that it was even more important, as it pointed toward the future task of dealing with racism, poverty and militarism.
Remarkable? That is not quite how others saw it.
Thanks to Fred Sontag, we had done an “excellent” job with the press. The primary aim of the Riverside Church initiative was to get Dr. King’s anti-war views into the public square as clearly as possible before his speaking engagement at the U.N. on April 15. That mission was accomplished. On April 5, 1967 Dr. King was blasted from east to west across the country by newspaper editorials, columnists, and TV and radio news commentators. He was called a traitor, stupid for mixing the civil rights and anti-war movement together, a communist and the outrage went on and on.
More chilling from King’s perspective, was the way in which leaders from several national civil rights organizations turned on him. They did not want to see the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement connected. Their opposition had less to do with their individual opinions about the War in Vietnam and more to do with what they foresaw as a strategic mess and a potential fund raising catastrophe.
A little over a week after the Riverside event I received a call from Andy Young. He wanted to know if Clergy and Laity Concerned would want to have Dr. King as one of its Co-Chairs. I tried to stay calm during the call and agreed to get back to him. It took less than a day for Clergy and Laity co-chairs to affirm Dr. King being named as a co-chair. Over the next year, he was only able to attend two board meetings and a national gathering of the organization to protest the war in Washington. He was assassinated one year to the day after his speech at Riverside Church.