Lesson Plan: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam"  


On 4 April 1967, King made his most public and comprehensive statement against the Vietnam War. Addressing a crowd of 3,000 people in New York City’s Riverside Church, King delivered a speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam." King pointed out that the war effort was "taking the young black men who have been crippled by our society and sending them 13,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."

Although some activists and newspapers supported King's statement, most responded with criticism. King's civil rights colleagues began to disassociate themselves with his radical stance and the NAACP issued a statement against merging the civil rights movement and peace movement. King remained undeterred, stating that he was not fusing the civil rights and peace movements, as many had suggested.

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Grades: 9-12  
National History Standards:
Era 9: Postwar United States, Standard 2C

The goal of this unit is for students to analyze, within the context of a particular historical period, Dr. King’s decision to speak out against the war in Vietnam . Why did he make this choice? What risks were involved? How was his speech received? Ultimately, this unit asks students to connect this speech to the present by having them consider Dr. King’s ideas about America ’s role in the world and their relevance to us today. In addition to encouraging active learning and the development of critical thinking skills, this lesson aims to help students see King as more than a civil rights leader, as they explore the political and social implications of King’s position against the war and his call for economic justice.

In addition to King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, this lesson includes a number of additional primary source documents that will help students respond thoughtfully to the questions raised above.

King and Dr. Spock
King and Dr. Benjamin Spock lead an anti-war march to the United Nations, 15 April 1967.

Photograph by Benedict Fernandez. Published in: Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.


However, without the appropriate historical context students may have difficulty making sense of the complex issues that connect the war and domestic policy. Therefore, it is essential that students have a basic understanding of the history of the war in Vietnam and the public debate that was taking place in the United States at that time. This unit also seeks to support students as they grapple with the ideas and questions raised in the documents themselves.

King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech covers a great deal of information, and we encourage teachers to break the document into a least two parts to make the material more manageable for students. This lesson utilizes newspaper editorials that were published following King’s speech to help students explore both sides of the issue and give them a broader historical context. For some additional information on teaching with primary source materials, see Joan Musbach’s Using Primary Sources in the Secondary Classroom” (OAH Magazine, Volume 14, No 4).

Essential Question:
Why did King make the choice to speak out against U.S. involvement in Vietnam when he risked doing harm to his status as a civil rights leader, as well as harming the movement itself?

Sub Questions:

  • What can we learn about King from his statement on the war that we most likely would not learn from a traditional teaching of King?
  • What might the response to King’s statement teach us about the social and political climate during this period?
  • How are King’s words relevant today?

Student Objectives

  • To use primary sources to analyze the reasons Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam and how this action was received
  • To place King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech into an historical, social and political context
  • To improve analytical and critical thinking skills
  • To develop strong arguments based on primary source materials
  • To broaden students’ understanding of King beyond that of just a civil rights leader

Unit Parts

  1. Establishing the Historical Context for “Beyond Vietnam”
  2. Why did King speak out and how was it received?
  3. What new information have we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Vietnam?
  4. Essay

Published in OAH Magazine Volume 19, January 2005


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