Home > Uncategorized > MLK history is not well-remembered – posted 1/23/2022

MLK history is not well-remembered – posted 1/23/2022

Another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has come and gone but I don’t think America is close to celebrating the real Dr. King. We have gotten too far away from the history which isn’t even that long ago.

I wanted to recommend a documentary, MLK/FBI, that recreates the history and grapples with King’s thirteen years of activism from 1955 to 1968. The movie shows how King became the moral leader of the nation by forging a non-violent movement dedicated to overturning segregation and combating poverty.

Instead of welcoming King’s leadership, the American power structure feared him and opposed change. And it was not just the powerful. It is forgotten how many Americans reviled King. In 1966, a Gallup poll determined that 63% of Americans held a negative view of King while only 32% had a positive one.

The FBI was alarmed by King’s charisma and his success in mobilizing people. The FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, worried about the rise of a Black Messiah who could electrify the masses. The FBI worried that King was that man.

Hoover’s number two at the Bureau, William Sullivan, said that MLK was “the most dangerous negro in America” and that “the FBI had to use all means to destroy him”. Sullivan suggested the FBI handpick a new leader to replace King. The FBI waged a vicious, secret campaign to neutralize King. The Bureau had been stung by King’s criticisms about their failure to protect civil rights leaders from racist attacks.

Hoover was the FBI Director for 48 years from 1924-1972. He turned the FBI into his private secret police force. Hoover had been raised in a repressed and reactionary segregationist milieu where white supremacy dominated. Along with being racist himself, he was convinced the civil rights movement was influenced by Communists. He saw King as uppity and a major threat to national security.

As the civil rights movement got stronger, Hoover became obsessed with King. The FBI put King under surveillance 24/7, including using informants, wiretaps, and hidden microphones to spy on him. Initially, the justification was King’s close association with Stanley Levinson, a friend who had some past association with the Communist Party USA.

Hoover, who was an expert at gathering dirt on people, tried to force King to break off his relationship with Levinson. He enlisted President Kennedy and then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to get King to disassociate from Levinson. King told JFK he would break off contact but he ultimately did not. King did not believe the FBI’s allegations and there has never been any evidence that the Communist Party had any influence on King.

King’s actions infuriated Hoover who saw him as a liar and a deceiver. Things between the two men spiraled in a bad direction. Hoover expanded the surveillance on King. FBI wiretaps revealed that King had a non-monogamous private life. They gathered recordings of King having sex with a variety of women who were not his wife.

In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize but Hoover remained totally offended by King’s sexuality. Hoover was probably jealous. He started referring to King as a “moral degenerate “ and a “tomcat”. He publicly called King “the most notorious liar in the country”.

Hoover shared the white southern fear of black sexuality. He treated private sexual conduct as an indicator of virtue. King pushed his buttons.

Hoover fit into the racist tradition of white men who lynched black men for alleged sexual improprieties but instead of killing King, he tried to push King to kill himself. The FBI compiled a taped greatest hits of King’s sexual exploits and sent it to King’s wife. Along with the tape was a letter urging King to kill himself.

The FBI continued to spread stories about King’s sexual indiscretions. It pressured universities not to award him honorary degrees. Knowing what we know now about JFK’s affairs and Hoover’s secret sexuality, hypocrisy is all over the map.

After the JFK assassination, King and LBJ had an alliance of sorts. Voting rights and civil rights bills got fast-tracked but the Vietnam war eventually blew that alliance apart. Long troubled by the American role, King spoke out against the war in a speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967. King said,

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The speech freaked out the liberal establishment. King was ahead of his time on Vietnam. The majority tide had not yet turned against the war. The New York Times, the Washington Post and even the NAACP rebuked King for opposing U.S. intervention in Indochina.

Later in 1967, King gave a speech in Chicago at the National Conference on New Politics. He stated:

“We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew in prosperity out of the Protestant Ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on this exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.”

King’s last political acts were the Poor People’s Campaign and his campaign to organize sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

In the Riverside Church speech King called for a “radical revolution in values” in which “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. King was a radical and a democratic socialist who always sided with poor and working people.

James Agee, in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, wrote:

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art or as religion or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor.”

With Dr. King, official acceptance has meant a relentless effort to water down his message. Gone is King’s critique of capitalism and militarism. In its place is mush. So many tributes to King are phony, insincere and forced. What James Agee described is exactly what has happened with Dr. King.

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