Flashback: The Legacy of Dr. King
From a speech delivered by Senator Robert Francis Kennedy on April 4, 1968 in Indianapolis, Indiana:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some -- some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.
Fast forward 15 years and a few days shy of seven months, on November 2, 1983 to the White House Rose Garden. President Ronald Wilson Reagan signs 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 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 acknowledged existence of this program said to be from 1956 until 1971.
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.”
An excerpt from Freedom Under Fire: U.S. Civil Liberties in Times of War by Michael Linfield ..... :
J. Edgar Hoover had a long-standing vendetta against Martin Luther King, Jr. After King criticized the FBI for not being more vigorous in protecting the civil rights of black citizens, the Bureau began putting a 'trash cover' on the SCLC office, investigating King's bank and charge accounts, instituting electronic surveillance on an Atlanta hideaway apartment often used by King; installing a bug in King's office; looking for personal weaknesses among SCLC employees that could be used to win their cooperation with the Bureau; sending a forged letter in King's name to SCLC contributors warning them that an IRS investigation was about to begin; and attempting to intensify a well-known mutual dislike of King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins.'
At the urging of J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach approved the illegal bugging of King's Washington, D.C. hotel room in July 1965. (Note: Robert F. Kennedy was Attorney General from 1961 to 1964.) Highlights of these tapes, purportedly evidence of King consorting with prostitutes, were sent by the FBI to his wife, Coretta Scott King Another letter, along with edited audio tapes, was sent to Dr. King thirty-four days before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The letter urged King to commit suicide as the only method of preventing the release of the tapes. Had the FBI's crude attempt to convince King to commit suicide been successful, Hoover was ready to replace him with another black "leader who had the approval of the FBI." * The Bureau also sent copies of these tapes to reporters at Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles news, the Atlanta Constitution and other papers. The FBI smear campaign failed, and these papers refused to print the FBI story.
Also from Freedom Under Fire .... :
The most infamous domestic spying program, begun in 1956 and continuing into the early 1970s, was known as COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). The purpose of this FBI program, in the words of one court, was to 'expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities' of New Left and other progressive organizations, 'including those involved in legitimate, non-violent activities." " Under the guise of preventing national and civil disorder:
the FBI planted stories about 'subversives" in the media, wrote scurrilous letters from fictional sources, opened mail, forged public documents, pressured universities and employers to dismiss targeted workers, encouraged 'friendly" organizations and local police to harass dissidents, exploited IRS tax records, and infiltrated legal organizations."
COINTELPRO consisted of numerous illegal tactics by the FBI, including.
• Eavesdropping: illegally bugging a person's home or office;
• Bogus mail: forging and sending (usually) anonymous letters, ranging from letters to the editor to death threats;
· "Black propaganda": creating false documents, purporting to come from the target organization;
• Infiltration: sending undercover spies into an organization, some of whom rose to positions of power and helped set policy for the organization;
• Agents provocateurs: undercover agents who urged others to violent activity, trained others in violent methods, and consciously provoked violence;
• Bad-jacketing: creating the impression, through false documents, rumors, bogus mail, etc., that the leader of an organization was actually a police informer;
as well as disinformation, harassment arrests, fabrication of evidence, and complicity in assassinations.'
The FBI was fully aware that COINTELPRO was highly illegal. COINTELPRO documents were marked 'do not file," and were prepared without the FBI's sequential filing system serial numbers. Thus, anyone looking through the files would find documents in perfect sequential order. Since there would be no missing serial numbers, the investigator would not be aware that documents had not been filed. In addition, this system allowed an FBI official to honestly testify that a thorough review of the files had yielded no COINTELPRO documents.
The concern and stated focus of COINTELPRO, 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 presumed to be 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.
EPILOGUE and update:
Among the organizations and individuals targeted during COINTELPRO were: in addition to Dr. King, the membership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), its members, including the late Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and its members, like Fred Hampton, assassinated in Chicago, Illinois and the Party's founders, Bobby Seale and the late Dr. Huey P. Newton.
All those who have survived have been left with the task of attempting to piece together actions and elements that became known, after COINTELPRO was uncovered, to determine how their lives and their organizations have been impacted by the F.B.I.'s actions.
It will never be completely known or understood how COINTELPRO and the variety of illegal methods used during its 16 years of implementation from 1956 to 1972 have effected those individuals and organizations targeted by the program.
In the case of the F.B.I.'s campaign against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wiretaps, collected during the surveillance of Dr. King, were ordered to be sealed, by a court in 1977, until 2027.
It cannot be known the widespread influence of this progam that shaped the minds and opinions of U.S. citizens, as well as the world, as COINTELPRO, using infiltrators and agent provocateurs within the targeted organizations to disrupt and cause disunity, spreading rumor and disinformation from within, created images to be attributed to its targets that J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. felt necessary and useful to achieve the program's stated and desired goal for use in the Black community, ".... to prevent the rise of a Black messiah."