By J.G. Noll

Born January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a national touchstone and hero for race relations, nonviolence, and civil rights. While King was never part of the military, his story has some interesting– and surprising– intersections with the military community.

1. King’s assassin was an Army vet

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

James Earl Ray enlisted in the Army in 1945 and was stationed in West Germany before being discharged less-than-honorably in 1948. During his stint in the Army, he had a rough time— serving three months hard labor for public drunkenness and resisting arrest.

2. Ray’s lawyer blamed a military conspiracy

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

Despite multiple people witnessing Ray’s fits of rage over even the image of King on a TV and his multiple threats against the civil rights leader, Ray maintained that he was not a lone assassin. Before his death as an old man, his lawyer “promoted the notion that the Army and Federal intelligence agencies had conspired to kill Dr. King.” King’s wife and children even spoke publicly about the possibility in the 1990’s saying that they supported Ray.

3. King was an anti-war activist

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

While King is known and feted for his civil rights work, he was also an ardent anti-war activist. He saw effort for the Vietnam War as sapping resources from the poor and believed that the US had a responsibility to the most downtrodden of its citizens first, stating that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

4. The military intervened after King’s murder

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

In the days after King’s assassination, riots and massive social unrest broke out in cities across the US. Governors activated their National Guards to deal with the violence. In the nation’s capitol, both federal and National Guardsmen were called in. Rioters came within two blocks of the White House, but never reached it. The military occupation of Washington, D.C. was the largest of any American city since the Civil War.

5. A fight broke out in Army stockade in Germany

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

Even service members were not immune to the social and emotional tensions after King’s assassination. A fight broke out between white and black soldiers in Mannheim, Germany after alleged incendiary remarks by a white prisoner regarding King’s death.

6. Virginia used to include generals in King’s observance

7 weird military connections to Martin Luther King Day

Since the early 1900s, Virginia celebrated a state holiday honoring Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, Confederate generals. In 1983, Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday that all states were required to comply with. The Virginia legislature decided that they would create Lee-Jackson-King Day, instead. In 2000, the governor split the holiday into two so that a Civil Rights leader and two Civil War generals were not observed on the same day. In three other states— Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi– Robert E. Lee Day is also Martin Luther King Day.

7. Two quotes about war adorn King’s memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Daniel Lobo, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. and you’ll see two of King’s famous quotes regarding war and the US’s responsibility in war.

On the South wall, you’ll read, “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”

On the North wall, you’ll see, “It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but the positive affirmation of peace.”