As happens each year on Martin Luther King Day, King is quoted to justify this or that position in the present. Many haven’t waited for today, and he has been fully mobilized since October 7 by supporters of Israel and the Palestinians, who claim to know what he would say now if he hadn’t been assassinated then, 56 years ago.
My work on King’s views is often cited, because I did the most thorough study of the subject, from a wide range of sources. If you’re interested, you can follow this link to read all my contributions.
This year, I want to introduce a text that I quoted years ago: an interview of King on ABC’s news program Issues and Answers, June 18, 1967. King, asked whether Israel should return the territory it had taken earlier that month, said this: “I think that for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.”
The Israel-Hamas war has led some to seize upon this quote, and insist that King stood up for Palestinian rights. Garrison Hayes, a reporter for Mother Jones, suggested as much in November. “We don’t have to imagine what King thought about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian people,” he wrote. “He spoke for himself.” Hayes then highlighted the ABC quote. I corresponded with Hayes before and after he published his piece, and I don’t doubt his sincerity. But I think he’s put an impossible burden on the quote.
“What are your views?”
To understand why, you have to read the whole exchange, which you won’t find today anywhere on the internet. The interviewers were Tom Jerriel (ABC Atlanta bureau chief) and John Casserly (ABC Washington correspondent). The questions about the Middle East followed a discussion of the Vietnam War.
Q: Let’s go to the other war for a moment, Dr. King. What are your views as a Nobel Peace Prize winner on the complex situation in the Middle East?
MLK: Well, it is certainly a very complex situation. I think first that we must work passionately and unrelentingly through the United Nations to try to grapple with this years-old problem in the Middle East. I would hope that the Middle East will not become an arena for power politics, whether we refer to Soviet Russia here, or the United States of America. We have got to achieve peace in the Middle East and in the Middle East achieving peace means two things.
Peace for Israel means security. The world and all people of good will must respect the territorial integrity of Israel. We must see Israel’s right to exist and always go out of the way to protect that right to exist. We must also see that Israel is there and any talk of driving the Jews into the Mediterranean, as we have heard over the last few weeks or the last several years, is not only unrealistic talk, but it is suicidal talk for the whole world and I think also it is terribly immoral. We must see what Israel has done for the world. It is a marvelous demonstration of what people together in unity and with determination, rugged determination, can do in transforming almost a desert into an oasis.
But the other side is this, that peace in the Middle East means something else. It means for the Arabs development. After all the Arab world is that third world, a part of that third world of poverty and illiteracy and disease and it is time now to have a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. I think this is going to be finally the only answer. So long as people are poor, so long as they find themselves on the outskirts of hope, they are going to make intemperate remarks. They are going to keep the war psychosis alive. And what we need to do now is to go all out to develop the underdeveloped, and we must see that there is a grave refugee problem that the Arabs have on their hands and the United Nations through all of the nations of the world must grapple very constructively and forthrightly with these problems.
Q: Should Israel in your opinion give back the land she has taken in conflict without certain guarantees, such as security?
MLK: Well, I think these guarantees should all be worked out by the United Nations. I would hope that all of the nations, and particularly the Soviet Union and the United States, and I would say France and Great Britain, these four powers can really determine how that situation is going.
I think the Israelis will have to have access to the Gulf of Aqaba. I mean the very survival of Israel may well depend on access to not only the Suez Canal, but the Gulf and the Strait of Tiran. These things are very important. But I think for the ultimate peace and security of the situation it will probably be necessary for Israel to give up this conquered territory because to hold on to it will only exacerbate the tensions and deepen the bitterness of the Arabs.
Q: But Israel indicates, Dr. King, that for its own security it should keep certain territory, particularly in Syria, the approaches to Israel, in order to maintain its own security.
MLK: Well, there again I am putting my hope in the United Nations. And I know the United Nations will not be effective if these major powers will not cooperate with it, so I am hoping that they will cooperate with it and that the UN itself will place a peacekeeping force there, so that neither of these forces, whether it is the Israeli forces or the Arab forces, will continue to engage in these brutal battles. And the other thing, I think there is a great need for greater disarmament, not only in the Middle East, but all over the world.
The first striking thing about this exchange is King’s exquisite care in formulating his answers. He knew that every word carried meaning in the charged moment, and he carefully crafted a response. As I showed elsewhere, those who now claim that King did not know enough about the conflict miss the mark. He had an informed and nuanced grasp of all its aspects.
Second, King’s position on Israel is forthright: “Peace for Israel means security.” Not only did he praise “marvelous” Israel, he defended Israel’s “territorial integrity” and its “right to exist,” while rejecting the “unrealistic,” “suicidal,” and “terribly immoral” call to destroy it.
The third striking thing, from today’s perspective, is that he did not mention the Palestinians. That’s because in 1967, the Palestinians weren’t an independent party to the war. The territories occupied by Israel in 1967 belonged to Egypt (Sinai and Egyptian-administered Gaza), Syria (the Golan Heights), and Jordan (the West Bank and East Jerusalem). At the time, all proposals for Israeli return of territories meant giving them back to these states. King specifically emphasized the conditions for Israel’s return of the Sinai to Nasser’s Egypt, Egypt being the leading Arab state and Israel’s primary enemy.
Palestinians, however, had a different demand. For nearly 20 years, they had insisted on their return to Israel proper, from which they had departed as refugees in 1948. King avoided saying anything that could be construed as endorsing that “right.” He acknowledged that there was a “grave refugee problem,” but the solution lay in economic development, promoted by “the United Nations through all of the nations.” (Later, in September, he alluded to the Palestinian demand as “a stubborn effort to reverse history.”)
So it is rather misleading to state that the ABC interview reveals “what King thought about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian people,” or that “King said that Israel should return Palestinian lands.” Neither then nor at any time did he speak of “the Palestinian people,” but only of “refugees.” Nor did he ever use the term “Palestinian lands.” King spoke of Israel “probably” returning territories taken from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria earlier that month, with international guarantees for Israel, as a pragmatic measure to alleviate “tensions” and “bitterness.”
A blind eye?
King was right: 1967 “deepened[ed] the bitterness of the Arabs” of all nationalities. But as he knew (from visiting Beirut, East Jerusalem and Cairo in 1959), they were bitter before that. To make peace, they too would have to change. That is where he has fallen short in the eyes of Palestinians. A prime example was the Palestinian thinker Edward Said, who said this in a 1993 interview:
With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s — and particularly in ’66-’67 — I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war.
Said’s nephew, the historian-activist Ussama Makdisi, put it more bluntly: King “turned a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinians.” These formulas do sound bitter, but I can see why Palestinian activists like Said and Makdisi would make them.
In any case, much has happened since 1967, and it is idle to speculate what King would say today. It’s not unreasonable to take some inspiration from his words, and draw contemporary conclusions based on a personal understanding of them. That’s why the wall behind his monument in Washington is etched with quotes. We are invited to read them as points of departure for thinking about the present.
But it is quite another thing to put words in King’s mouth. And there is one word he never uttered: “Palestinian.” We will have to get through the present crisis without his specific guidance.