In all the commentary on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and tributes to Martin Luther King, one historical note almost sure to be overlooked is how King himself was strongly urged to make — and ultimately declined — a run for president himself in 1968, the year of his assassination.
Because of his spirited opposition to the Vietnam War under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, King was strongly considered as a presidential candidate by anti-war liberals.
Identified as Americas' premier civil rights leader by 1967, King stunned and disappointed many of his followers by embracing the anti-Vietnam movement.
"Against the advice of fellow civil rights leaders, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, Martin Luther King began marching against the war," wrote historian Richard Pearlstein. "The two struggles felt to him one, and silence began to feel to him self-betrayal."
In April of that year, King brought a massive anti-war rally in United Nations Plaza in New York to its feet with his signature pulpit oratory.
"Let us take a single instantaneous step to the peace table— stop the bombing!" he thundered. "Let our voices ring across the land to say the American people are not vainglorious conquerors — stop the bombing!"
Unknown to the public or the anti-war movement at large, its leaders were already talking to Dr. King as their candidate for president against Johnson in 1968.
On January 5, former National Students Association leader — and future New York congressman — Allard Lowenstein, Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin and four-time Socialist presidential nominee Norman Thomas held a discussion with King and his friend, New York attorney Harry H. Wachtel.
They suggested that the clergyman run for president.
Writing in "The American Melodrama," British authors Godfrey Hodgson, Lewis Chester, and Bruce Page noted, "In March 1967, during the first discussions of liberal strategy for 1968, Lowenstein and his hero Norman Thomas inclined toward the idea of putting up Martin Luther King as a third-party peace candidate."
King certainly let his admirers on the left encourage his candidacy, and the talks went on for months.
As someone who was not affiliated with either major party — his home state of Georgia did not have party registration — King would certainly not be repulsed by a third party bid.
In addition, the pulpit of many black churches is the genesis of many political leaders. Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, served as a Democratic congressman from New York from 1945-71. A King protege, Rev. Andrew Young, would go on to serve as congressman from Georgia and mayor of Atlanta. Rev. William Gray, a popular Baptist pastor in Philadelphia, was a Democratic House member from 1977-91.
On August 31 1967, more than 3,000 liberals, Vietnam War opponents, and civil rights and community activists met in Chicago for a five-day National Conference for a New Politics. The theme of the conclave was electoral strategy.
The "wish list" of many of the participants was a third party ticket with King for president and pediatrician and anti-war leader Benjamin Spock for vice president. But others felt that to be taken seriously, an anti-war presidential candidate had to be a Democrat who challenged Johnson in the primaries.
King finally said no to the presidential overtures of Lowenstein, Thomas, and others. As his close friend, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, later recalled, "He spoke about his uneasiness with the ambiguities of electoral politics in all its forms, and the need to recapture the uncomplicated moral drama of Birmingham and earlier campaigns in the South."
Resigned to the idea of an anti-war candidate running as an insurgent Democrat, Lowenstein unsuccessfully tried to persuade numerous possibilities to run. Among them were retired Gen. James Gavin (a registered Republican) and economist John Kenneth Galbraith (born a Canadian citizen and thus ineligible to run).
He finally persuaded Minnesota Democrat Sen. Eugene McCarthy to make the race and his stunning showing in the New Hampshire primary — where he won 42 percent of the vote, compared to Johnson's 49 percent — help convinced LBJ to retire.
Martin Luther King considered a presidential run but decided he had other plans. Recalling a lunch in New York he had with King 1968, Neuhaus wrote that they "talked about the abiding wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr and the need to recognize the distinction between the morally imperative and the historically possible, agreeing also on the moral imperative to press the historically possible.
"It was the last time I saw him."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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