The Real Martin Luther King, Jr., – spied on & harassed by US government

by on January 18, 2010 · 4 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Organizing, Peace Movement

Apostle of change came out against Vietnam War and colonialism and for workers’ rights

by Mike Marqusee

Martin Luther King, 1963 Originally posted April 6, 2008

As we hear today, Martin Luther King is commemorated as an apostle of social harmony. In reality, his quest for justice made him a deeply controversial figure in his day.

It’s testimony to the awkward power of Martin Luther King’s life and work that so much effort has gone into sanitizing his memory. Today he’s commemorated as an apostle of social harmony, a hero in the triumphant march of American progress. But at the time of his death 41 years ago, on April 4, 1968, his increasingly radical challenge to war and poverty had made him deeply controversial, spied on and harassed by his government, feared and loathed by millions of Americans.

The civil rights movement’s challenge to Jim Crow in the south had secured major advances, but had also exposed the intractability of American racism. Legal segregation had been destroyed, but economic inequality loomed larger than ever. Inner cities across the nation erupted in violence every summer between 1964 and 1967. The Black Power slogan had signaled a new black nationalist consciousness among younger activists. The role of white people in the movement came under scrutiny and there were calls for black-only organizations.

Under pressure

Martin Luther King stood in the middle of this tempest, under pressure from militant youth on his left and cautious elders on his right. In 1967, his opposition to the war in Vietnam had been denounced by mainstream civil rights leaders and liberal opinion-makers, including The New York Times. While he agreed with the militants that the movement had to enter a new, more ambitious phase, he continued to advocate both non-violence and inter-racial alliances. “We don’t enlist races in the movement. We enlist consciences. And anybody who wants to be free, and to make somebody else free, that’s what we want.”

In January 1968, King launched an inter-racial Poor People’s Campaign. The idea was to bring black, white and brown poor people to Washington, where they would establish a tent city and camp out in front of Congress until either a job or a living income was guaranteed for all.

Increasingly, King identified the war in Vietnam as part of a global struggle against colonialism, and black inequality as a function of class inequalities that also affected many whites. Though he opposed the separatism espoused by black nationalists, he had his own view of what “integration” meant: “We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure.” A “radical redistribution of economic power” was needed. “So often in America,” he observed, “we have socialism for the rich and ragged free enterprise capitalism for the poor.”

King’s political direction alarmed the FBI, which planted stories in the press to discredit him as a “Communist” and link the Poor People’s Campaign to violent plots against the government.

On March 18, he journeyed to the city of Memphis, on the Mississippi River, where for five weeks 1,300 black sanitation workers had been on strike for union recognition and a living wage. King was excited by the sometimes tense but creative coalition that had emerged in support of the strikers. Black churches, white-led trade unions, students and ghetto youth had kept up a succession of marches and protests, despite assaults and arrests by local police.

“All labor has dignity,” King told the strikers in Memphis. “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” He urged them to stay out till their demands were met. “Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.”

In the U.S. in recent weeks the sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremy Wright – notably his “God damn America” speech – have been denounced by all and sundry. Wright’s anger and “divisiveness” has been regularly contrasted with King’s gentle and unifying approach. But I doubt many of Wright’s critics would be much more satisfied with “the indictment of America” pronounced by King on that night in Memphis in 1968: “If America does not use her vast wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.”

King returned to Memphis on April 3rd. In his famous speech at the Mason Temple he acknowledged fears for his safety. But he told the strikers he’d been “to the mountaintop” and “seen the promised land”: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!”

The next day he was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was 39 years old.

Widespread protests

The civil disorder that ensued was the most widespread in U.S. history. Riots erupted in 125 cities; 70,000 national guard and U.S. troops were called in to quell them, with 50,000 on stand-by – the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War. In the end, 24,000 were arrested; 3,000 injured; 46 killed, all but five black.

In Washington, D.C., crowds 20,000-strong overwhelmed local police. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol. At one point, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House, which was guarded by the Third Infantry.

Sixty-five days after King’s killing, his alleged assassin was captured in London. James Earl Ray was painted as a racist loser and was declared to have acted alone. But there have always been doubts. Hundreds of police and FBI agents surrounded the Lorraine Motel that day. Ray not only escaped their detection to position himself comfortably within shooting distance of King; he was able to flee the scene without being stopped. It’s been suggested that not only the Memphis police, but U.S. military intelligence were involved in the assassination. In 1999, the King family brought a civil suit in Memphis for wrongful death; after reviewing the evidence in more detail than had ever been done before, the jury ruled that government agencies had indeed been involved in a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King.

The immediate impact of the King assassination was to deprive the U.S. anti-war and black freedom movements of their most effective leader, perhaps the only one who could have united the disparate constituencies of dissent. Long-term, it deprived the world of a voice for social justice that was to be desperately needed in the decades that followed.

Who knows how King would have evolved? After the first flush of fame, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956-57, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, it would have been easy for him to rise above the fray and enjoy his prestige. He chose to do the opposite. He chose to take the hardest course, confronting the realities of power, the scale of change necessary and the obstacles to that change. He not only talked; he listened. King had something precious and very rare indeed among leaders, a capacity for self-criticism and growth. The real Dr. King was an altogether more demanding and inspiring figure than the emollient angel being celebrated this week in the U.S.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Sparling April 6, 2008 at 10:49 pm

Let us not forget that MLK had a bitter enemy at the top of the FBI. Yes the old queen in the red dress hated his guts. When the media refused to print all the trash Hoover had on King, he sent some recordings to Kings wife. Yet they named the FBI building after this old queen. More important, those were the days when we had a free press.


Pam Rider January 18, 2010 at 12:01 pm

It’s hard to appreciate the smarmy creepiness of the FBI bugs of Dr. King without reading Taylor Branch. All three volumes of his MLK biography are meticulously documented. He includes transcripts of the taping of MLK. It’s hard to explain, but I could not imagine anyone dismissing such tactics after reading actual tape transcipts.


Dave Sparling January 18, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Thanks for saving my old comment, I would not change a word. Now I just added this on iReports and everywhere I can get it printed.


Sunshine January 19, 2010 at 7:22 am

such strength of conviction MLK possessed and let shine from within. we should all be so well equipped to take on the establishments status qo.


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