Today is Martin Luther King Day, and if you lived through the 1960s, you’ll never forget that turbulent decade. Even turbulent is putting it mildly: weekly classroom drills for nuclear attacks (Get under my desk? What the heck is this thing made of?); riots over race, poverty, the draft, and the Vietnam War; the assassinations of JFK, King, and Bobby Kennedy; and so much more.
Martin Luther King was a leading figure of those times, beloved and hated nationally and internationally. Love him or hate him, he was remarkable. Against the worst of odds, he effected change through peaceful protest. The impact was clear, even here in the North Country.
A series of events during the 1960s proved that peaceful protest and the purity of King’s motives were strong enough to convert critics and naysayers. Plattsburgh offers an example of King’s effect over the course of a decade.
Until the mid-1990s, the city had two longstanding identities as a college town and a military town. The rigid thinking of the military and the free-thinking atmosphere of colleges were forced to coexist. But in 1960, students at Plattsburgh State and representatives of Plattsburgh Air Force Base disagreed on the right to protest.
Students wanted to conduct a peace march, but city officials didn’t want to risk offending the military, so the request was denied. In an editorial, the Press-Republican cited the lack of local support for “a very basic constitutional question,” the right of peaceful assembly.
Defenders of the air base countered that protestors were dupes who were aiding and abetting the enemy. With that argument, there is no middle ground. It’s a useful tactic: frame an issue as black and white, leaving no tolerance for disagreement ―exactly the opposite of what our First Amendment guarantees. But it worked well for Joseph McCarthy, and it’s a favorite of self-described patriots―when you disagree with them, it makes you … a non-patriot, of course!
The 1960 march in Plattsburgh was banned, but three years later, the issue surfaced again. Four PSUC students, calling themselves “Citizens for Peace,” requested a permit for 14 supporters of the cause to conduct a peace march―to the gates of PAFB, and on Armed Forces Day.
A three-man council of city representatives met with the students and ultimately denied the request. Also present at the meeting was an airman from the base. His input was reported as a brief statement: “I think that you would run into trouble when you got to the base. A few hundred airmen―and I don’t include myself―would be right out there tramping you, literally.” Imagine that: a veiled threat by the military against the very citizens (their hosts!) whose rights the airmen were sworn to defend to the death.
The students told the council, “We’re not trying to change the world. We just want to express ourselves.” They provided a list of objectives, including peace without fear, combating poverty and disease, and denouncing nuclear testing. The city sided with the airman and the march was denied.
This was in 1963, when MLK’s influence was reaching new levels, highlighted by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
During the next couple of years, King targeted other issues that he felt negatively affected race, job, and poverty issues. When he spoke out against the war and the draft; supported the acceptance of Red China (that’s what it was called back then) into the UN; and urged the US to negotiate with the Vietcong, a major anti-King media campaign ensued. Thousands of editorials criticized him, the comments coming from editors, military experts, administration officials, congressmen, civic leaders, and private citizens.
A 1965 editorial (by an administration official) in the Press-Republican said this of King: “He has absolutely no competence to speak about complex matters of foreign policy,” adding that his claims were “nothing short of arrogance.” It was typical of the vicious attacks on King’s intelligence and integrity.
Moving further to the right by 1967, the Press-Republican ran a local editorial highly critical of King’s latest efforts. Some excerpts: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King has joined the chorus of leftists, beatniks, and Vietniks …with some outrageous and totally uncalled for criticisms. … [the war], he says, is interfering with Negro social progress in this country. King … has gone far out of line in doing so.
“… King must inevitably lose the respect of the millions who counsel common sense and moderation in the rights struggle. His efforts to link civil rights with Vietnam can only lead to a waste of energies and create confusion. … King has done himself, his country, and the civil rights cause a grave disservice.”
But King knew what he was doing, and the effects were felt locally as well as nationally. That same year (1967), a peace march was planned in the North Country, and this one came to fruition. From King’s successes, people realized it was possible to make a difference. Protestors marched from downtown Champlain to the Canadian border, bringing attention to war issues. With two countries in the mix, media coverage was far-reaching.
As the war dragged on, the protests spread and the country changed. In November 1969, a War Moratorium March on Washington drew an estimated half-million demonstrators. Americans across the country were encouraged to march in sympathy in their own cities, and they did. In Plattsburgh, home of a critical air force base, more than 350 marched from PSUC to the Macdonough Monument. Even more showed up for a candlelight vigil.
Many people spoke out in support of the peaceful protests. Others publicly dismissed the marches and vigils as disgusting, counterproductive, and a comfort to our enemies. Same ol’ same ol’. Still, King’s effect was apparent. In Plattsburgh, where city officials had banned such protests in 1960 and 1963, people turned out by the hundreds for the very same causes in 1969.
And it didn’t end there. In 1972, a Plattsburgh peace march was held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Not just citizens―war veterans! The route covered the city, ending in a large shopping plaza in clear view of the main entrance to Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Quite the change from nine years earlier.
Fast-forward to 1982, when a protest movement (similar to the marches of the 1960s) urged nuclear disarmament. While addressing the subject in an editorial, Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican revealed how their view of King had evolved. You don’t see it often in the media, but the newspaper admitted it had been wrong to criticize King’s methods.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see thousands of people demonstrating for one cause or another in the nation’s capital. One of the first was the 1963 civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. Those early protests for racial equality were followed by demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
“During those early days of protest, most Americans, especially our elected representatives in Washington, believed that mass marches, rallies, and picketing wouldn’t do a thing to change minds. In fact, many felt these demonstrations would backfire—that lawmakers wouldn’t even consider the demands of street marchers.
“But most everyone, including the news media, misread what was happening. In retrospect, we believe those civil rights marches and anti-war protests did indeed bring about important civil rights legislation and withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia.” MLK Jr. was right after all.
King possessed something that most of us lack, but deeply admire: the courage of his convictions. Don’t confuse it with intransigence, which often involves little or no courage at all and no thinking whatsoever. Today, stake out a position, dig in your heels, and Presto! You’re a politician.
But unlike most of our senators and congressmen, King wasn’t speaking on behalf of a company, a special interest group, a think tank, or a billionaire. He was speaking for people: racial minorities, the poor, the jobless. Like him or not, most of us knew he tried to do what was right, standing strong for a cause that was far bigger than the man himself.
Find that among our politicians today and you’ve found yourself a true leader.
Good luck looking. You’re gonna need it.
Photos: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the 1963 march on Washington (Wikipedia).