Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never sought public office or held an allegiance to any of the major political parties. “I don’t think the Republican Party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic Party,” he said in a 1958 interview. “They both have their weaknesses. I'm not concerned about telling you what party to vote for. But what I'm saying is this, that we must gain the ballot and use it wisely."

Yet in 1967 with both the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in full swing, King briefly considered launching a presidential campaign on a third-party ticket with Dr. Benjamin Spock, the noted pediatrician and the author of the bestseller Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare. Spock had risen to fame in the 1940s with his guidance on raising children, but by the 1960s, he was one of the leading antiwar demonstrators in the country.

After seeing Ramparts magazine photos of Vietnam children sprayed with napalm by U.S. military forces, King came to a reckoning about the war. “Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands of little children in Vietnam,” he said. This new awareness brought King closer to Spock and the antiwar movement and on the precipice of electoral politics.

MLK’s Vietnam Speech at Riverside Church

On April 4, 1967 before 3,000 people at New York’s Riverside Church, King gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, where he called for the U.S. government to take immediate steps to end the Vietnam War. “If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam,” he said.

The speech received a swift rebuke from leaders across the political spectrum. The Pittsburgh Courier, the leading Black weekly newspaper, said that King “does not speak for all Negro America and besides he is tragically misleading them.” President Lyndon B. Johnson felt betrayed by King’s antiwar statements after finding common cause with him over civil rights issues. 

For Dr. Spock, the speech gave momentum to his crusade to end the war. A month before his speech at Riverside, King had participated in his first antiwar demonstration with Dr. Spock in New York at the urging of his wife, Coretta Scott King, who had marched with the pediatrician in a major antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. in 1965. Coretta believed that by taking a strong stance on the Vietnam War, her husband “could become the most important symbol for peace in this country, as well as for world peace.” 

The Push for a King-Spock Presidential Ticket

Coretta wasn’t the only prominent antiwar leader who believed that King could symbolize world peace through anti-war activism. Yale University Chaplain William Sloan Coffin, Allard Lowenstein, then an activist and college professor, and Norman Thomas, a minister and socialist, actively recruited King to run with Spock on a third-party ticket for the 1968 presidential election. Thomas, who later became a co-founder of the ACLU, had worked for years very closely with King.  “He is one of the bravest men I ever met,” King said of Thomas.

To these veterans of the Vietnam antiwar movement, the sight of Dr. Spock and Dr. King walking arm in arm during a peace demonstration in New York not long after the Riverside speech must have given them hope for this political union.

Shortly after his speech at the Riverside Church, King held a press conference with other antiwar leaders, including Spock, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they called for the mobilization of thousands of volunteers across the country who would  focus on electing candidates in 1968 that were dedicated to a peaceful end to the war. Of what was known as Vietnam Summer, King said, “It is time now to meet the escalation of the war in Vietnam with an escalation of opposition to that war.”

According to a King biographer, David Garrow, the civil rights leader was never seriously interested in political office, even as he was lobbied by these antiwar leaders to form this ticket with Dr. Spock.

“Norman Young and Allard Lowenstein pleaded with [Andrew] Young (a close aide) to ask King not to bar the door to running,” Garrow wrote in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King, says Garrow, had told one of his aides that he needed to be in a “position of being my own man.”

King: No Other Ambition But Ministry

King would later say that he had “no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry” and that he “didn’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher.” It was this Baptist preacher who yielded a measure of political and moral authority that made his role outside of partisan politics a key element of his gift as a leader.

One year to the date of his Riverside speech, Dr. King was killed outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by a white supremacist named James Earl Ray.

In 1972, Dr. Spock ran for president as a third-party candidate from the People’s Party. Julius Hobson, a Black Washington, D.C. educator, was his running mate. On the ballot in 10 states and charged with a platform calling for the immediate withdrawal of all American troops in Vietnam, the Spock-Hobson ticket earned about 79,000 votes.   

HISTORY Vault: Vietnam in HD

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