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Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Weapons and the Legacy of Dr. King

by Vincent Intondi
January 10, 2019

Dr. King believed that nuclear disarmament was essential and inextricably linked to the quest for social justice and racial equality.

On February 6, 1968, Dr. King, stepped up to the pulpit to warn against the use of nuclear weapons. Addressing the second mobilization of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, King urged an end to the war and warned that if the United States used nuclear weapons in Vietnam the earth would be transformed into an inferno that “even the mind of Dante could not envision.”

Then, as he had done so many times before, King made clear the connection between the black freedom struggle in America and the need for nuclear disarmament: “These two issues are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate.”

Martin Luther King at the lectern

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church about ending the war in Vietnam, Washington DC, February 6, 1968. Dr. King was invited to the church as the national co-chair for the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

Joseph Klipple/Getty Images

King was not alone. Since 1945, many in the African American community actively supported nuclear disarmament, often connecting the nuclear issue with the fight for racial equality and with liberation movements around the world.  While African Americans immediately condemned the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not all of the activists protested for the same reason. For some, race was the issue. Many in the black community agreed with Langston Hughes’s assertion that racism was at the heart of Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan. Why did the United States not drop atomic bombs on Italy or Germany, Hughes asked.

Black activists’ fear that race played a role in the decision to use atomic bombs only increased when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam a decade later. For others, mostly black leftists ensconced in Popular Front groups, the nuclear issue was connected to colonialism.

From the United States obtaining uranium from the Belgian-controlled Congo to France testing nuclear weapons in the Sahara, activists saw a direct link between those who possessed nuclear weapons and those who colonized the nonwhite world. However, for many ordinary black citizens, fighting for nuclear disarmament simply translated into a more peaceful world. The bomb, then, became the link that connected all of these issues and brought together musicians, artists, peace activists, leftists, clergy, journalists, and ordinary citizens inside the black community.

I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned. It cannot be disputed that a full-scale nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1957

Many scholars argue that Dr. King’s shift to peace and economic justice began in the mid-1960s. However, King’s fight for nuclear disarmament began a decade earlier. Since the late 1950s, Dr. King spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons, linking the Bomb to the black freedom struggle. King consistently called for an end to nuclear testing asking, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?”

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In 1959, five months after being stabbed in Harlem, King addressed the War Resisters League’s thirty-sixth annual dinner, where he praised its work and linked the domestic struggle for racial justice with the campaign for global disarmament: “Not only in the South, but throughout the nation and the world, we live in an age of conflicts, an age of biological weapons, chemical warfare, atomic fallout and nuclear bombs . . . Every man, woman, and child lives, not knowing if they shall see tomorrow’s sunrise.”

Dr. King’s wife largely inspired his anti-nuclear stance. Coretta Scott King began her activism as a student at Antioch College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King worked with various peace organizations, and along with a group of female activists, began pressuring Kennedy for a nuclear test ban. In 1962, Coretta King served as a delegate for Women Strike for Peace at a disarmament conference in Geneva that was part of a worldwide effort to push for a nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Coretta Scott King holds a sign at a protest

Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., joins Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson in a march on the United Nations Plaza. New York City, Nov. 1, 1963.

Bettmann/Getty Images

King’s stance has, in the decades following his death, continued to reverberate. Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, routinely spoke out against nuclear weapons and urged for an end to “Armageddon devices”; Jesse Jackson, during his presidential run, dedicated a substantial portion of his campaign to the nuclear arms race, stating, “We will choose the human race over the nuclear race”; and in 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part due to his commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Since 1945, black anti-nuclear activists have been part of a larger narrative that challenges the idea that the black freedom struggle was an isolated movement in a narrowly defined set of years. Their persistence in supporting nuclear disarmament allowed the fight to abolish nuclear weapons to reemerge powerfully in the 1970s and beyond. Black leaders never gave up the nuclear issue or failed to see its importance; by doing so, they broadened the black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.

This content is adapted with permission from African Americans Against the Bomb by Vincent Intondi.

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