On November 2, 1983, in the White House Rose Garden, President Ronald Wilson Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the United States of America, which was to occur on the third Monday in January. The holiday was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.
In August 1983, Congress passed the King Day Bill with by a majority vote of 338 for to 90 against in the House of Representatives and 78 for to 22 against in the Senate.
However, it wasn't until January 17, 2000 that Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all 50 states, with Utah being the last hold out.
Shortly after Dr. King's assassination, on April 4, 1968, he was heralded by many sectors as one of the greatest leaders of our time.
Not everyone felt that way about Dr. King or his legacy, instigating a variety of campaigns to discredit his achievements and undermine the rising tide of change in this country and its policies toward those of African descent.
Dr. King was one among many other Black leaders of that time period who were investigated and whose organizations were infiltrated by the F.B.I. through the use of a program called the CounterIntelligence Program or COINTELPRO.
The F.B.I, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, instituted this program, with a specific interest in the Black community to, “...prevent the rise of a Black Messiah.”
The concern and stated focus, as implemented in the Black community, was to neutralize elements of the Black community (possible leaders) that would “unify and electrify” the newly blossoming movements for social justice within the Black community.
In Dr. King's case, he was targeted because, even though his movement stressed nonviolent protest, it was feared, as stated in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, that if he abandoned those tactics and philosophy, he would have galvanized a substantial force that could not be ignored.
The television news media, the newest tool for mass consumption at the time, must be credited for providing the nation and the world an opportunity to see what was happening across the US during that period and being instrumental in making many aware of the unfair treatment accorded the Black community in relation to the treatment bestowed upon the rest of the United States' citizens.
A low murmur for change was spreading across America, with those in power and the powerless unsure how events would proceed.
Enter Dr. King onto the world stage. His advocacy of a strategy of non violent protest, modeled after Mohandas K. Gandhi of India's movement, presented an interesting dilemma for the US, but, at the heart of this movement's impetus was a strategy that seemed to pose no possible physical danger or harm for the US government.
Of course, the ideological battle was yet to come. Night after night, television reports were beamed into homes in the US and around the world, complete with news footage, showing Black men, women and children, beaten, kicked, attacked by dogs and with high pressure water hoses, all with no sign of resistance from the victims. These were powerful images. How could the government, using today's parlance, 'spin' those images as if the actions of the police and government officials were justifiable?
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed his brother, Robert Francis Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States Of America. One of Robert Kennedy's first tasks was to authorize the F.B.I.'s investigation of Dr. King, who was alleged to be a communist.
According to the Final Report of the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations, completed in April 1974, Attorney General Kennedy's authorization was given in October 1963. He authorized the wiretapping of Dr. King, “...at his current address or any future address to which he may move...”.
This statement was used to justify bugging any hotel room, friend or acquaintance's home where Dr. King may have stayed temporarily. The offices of Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in New York and Atlanta were also wiretapped. There were also hidden microphones planted in Dr. King's hotel rooms for two years until 1965.
The trail of who authorized or allowed precisely what becomes fuzzy when questions are raised regarding the broad latitude that was applied when acting upon the authorization of wiretaps.
It is reported that Attorney General Kennedy's authorization was meant to be for limited wiretapping and surveillance but, it is alleged it was F.B.I. Director Hoover who extended the focus of the order.
In the case of Dr. King, reports on wiretaps from several locations were handed over to Attorney General Robert Kennedy until his resignation in September of 1964.
At the time of Dr. King's emergence as a voice speaking on behalf of the so called Negro in America, he was considered a more acceptable alternative to the perceivably more ominous segments among the Black community that decided the 'turn the other cheek' philosophy was not for them, namely elements of what was termed collectively, the Black Power movement.
The COINTELPRO directive sought to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah from any sector of the Black community, which led to the recruitment of spies and informants within numerous organizations involved in the Black Power/Civil Rights struggle, the infiltration of these organizations by F.B.I. agents, with disinformation campaigns waged to pit one organization against the other.
Many activists from both sides of the struggle constantly received death threats, with many losing their lives as did Dr. King, who was assasinated on April 4, 1968.
The concerns which motivated the government's actions seemed to mirror the beliefs of the most hard line Dixiecrats from the South during that time period, that being that the 'nigras' had been fine until 'outsiders' stirred 'em up so, therefore there had to have been some kind of Communist conspiracy and plot afoot.
As for United States citizens outside of the Black community, many of these citizens were truly moved and felt the need to participate to help end the injustices done in the Black community in their country.
Ultimately, Dr. King's strategy was embraced by many outside of and within the Black community, with still other voices, some inside the Black community, cursing his name for stirring up trouble and not letting 'sleeping dogs lie'.
Those of us who lived through this era know that only time has allowed Dr. King and his movement to be looked upon with favor in almost all sectors of American society.
No matter where one lines up on the issues relating to Dr. King and his contributions to what began as a movement for social justice, not a movement for civil rights, as was the eventual outcome of the period, it must be acknowledged that without Dr. King's legacy, and I hope on this point we can all agree, we would all be living in a much different America today.