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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

W. E. B. Du Bois to Malcolm X: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb 

By Vincent Intondi

Zinn Education Project July 30, 2015

Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson (L) in a march on the United Nations Plaza, New York City, Nov. 1, 1963. Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS, used with permission.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam, the media attacked him for straying outside of his civil rights mandate. In so many words, powerful interests told him: “Mind your own business.” In fact, African American leaders have long been concerned with broad issues of peace and justice—and have especially opposed nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this activism is left out of mainstream corporate-produced history textbooks.

On June 6, 1964, three Japanese writers and a group of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) arrived in Harlem as part of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. Their mission: to speak out against nuclear proliferation.

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Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist, organized a reception for the hibakusha at her home in the Harlem Manhattanville Housing Projects, with her friend Malcolm X. Malcolm said, “You have been scarred by the atom bomb. You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.” He went on to discuss his years in prison, education, and Asian history. Turning to Vietnam, Malcolm said, “If America sends troops to Vietnam, you progressives should protest.” He argued that “the struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World: the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” Malcolm X, like so many before him, consistently connected colonialism, peace, and the Black freedom struggle. Yet, students have rarely heard this story.

With the recent developments in Charleston surrounding the Confederate flag, there is a renewed focus on what should be included in U.S. history textbooks and who should determine the content. Focusing on African American history, too often textbooks reduce the Black freedom movement to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Rosa Parks and Dr. King are put in their neat categorical boxes and students are never taught the Black freedom struggle’s international dimensions, viewing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement as purely domestic phenomena unrelated to foreign affairs. However, Malcolm X joined a long list of African Americans who, from 1945 onward, actively supported nuclear disarmament. W. E. B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party were just a few of the many African Americans who combined civil rights with peace, and thus broadened the Black freedom movement and helped define it in terms of global human rights.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois

If students learn about Du Bois at all, it is usually that he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or that he received a PhD from Harvard. However, a few weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Du Bois likened President Truman to Adolph Hitler, calling him “one of the greatest killers of our day.” He had traveled to Japan and consistently criticized the use of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, fearing another Hiroshima in Korea, Du Bois led the effort in the Black community to eliminate nuclear weapons with the “Ban the Bomb” petition. Many students go through their entire academic careers and learn nothing of Du Bois’ work in the international arena.

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Bayard Rustin speaking at the 1958 Anti-Nuclear Rally in England. Image: Contemporary Films.

If students ever hear the name Bayard Rustin, it is usually related to his work with the March on Washington. He has been tragically marginalized in U.S. history textbooks, in large part because of his homosexuality. However, Rustin’s body of work in civil rights and peace activism dates back to the 1930s. In 1959, during the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin not only fought institutional racism in the United States, but also traveled to Ghana to try to prevent France from testing its first nuclear weapon in Africa.

These days, some textbooks acknowledge Dr. King’s critique of the Vietnam War. However, King’s actions against nuclear weapons began a full decade earlier in the late 1950s. From 1957 until his death, through speeches, sermons, interviews, and marches, King consistently protested the use of nuclear weapons and war. King called for an end to nuclear testing asking, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by Strontium-90 or atomic war?” Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, King called on the government to take some of the billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons and use those funds to increase teachers’ salaries and build much needed schools in impoverished communities. Two years later, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King argued the spiritual and moral lag in our society was due to three problems: racial injustice, poverty, and war. He warned that in the nuclear age, society must eliminate racism or risk annihilation.

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Letter from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament inviting Dr. King and Bayard Rustin to their mass march. Click to read letter at the King Center website.

Dr. King’s wife largely inspired his antinuclear stance. Coretta Scott King began her activism as a student at Antioch College. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, King worked with various peace organizations, and along with a group of female activists, began pressuring President Kennedy for a nuclear test ban. In 1962, Coretta King served as a delegate for Women Strike for Peace at a disarmament conference in Geneva that was part of a worldwide effort to push for a nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Upon her return, King spoke at AME church in Chicago, saying: “We are on the brink of destroying ourselves through nuclear warfare . . . . The Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement must work together ultimately because peace and civil rights are part of the same problem.”

Soon, we will commemorate the 70th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after comes the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Students will then return to school and to their history textbooks. However, most will not learn how these issues are connected. They will not learn of all those in the Civil Rights Movement who simultaneously fought for peace. But this must change, and soon. The scarring of war and poverty and racism that Malcolm X spoke of continues. It’s time that students learn about the long history of activism that has challenged these deadly triplets.

vincent_intondiVincent J. Intondi is an associate professor of history at Montgomery College and director of research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. He is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement(Stanford University Press, 2015).

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Selma

How ‘Selma’ Diminishes Dr. King

MLK was a political genius. Why does the film obscure that?

Politico Magazine December 31, 2014

One evening toward the end of his tragically short life, Martin Luther King Jr. unleashed what must have been years of deeply stifled frustration and sorrow. Drinking alone, he thrashed about his empty hotel room in tears, upsetting furniture and banging on walls, screaming, “I don’t want to do this any more! I want to go back to my little church!” Hearing the disturbance from down the hall, his trusted aides, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, rushed to King’s side, removed a bottle of whiskey from his possession, and convinced him to lay down and rest.

Thrust into the public spotlight at the age of 26, King spent his remaining 13 years living out of suitcases, sleeping restlessly on airplanes, serving time in jail, raising money and, when he wasn’t mediating ideological and personal differences within a deeply factious civil rights movement, brokering the end of American apartheid. It’s tempting all these years later to remember MLK as a god, but he was very much human and conscious of his limitations. “Well,” he apologetically told associates the following morning, “now it’s established that I ain’t a saint.”

Few people would dispute the inestimable position that Martin Luther King holds in American history, or the cross that he bore for his millions of countrymen. Reconciling his greatness and fallibility is the same challenge that greets biographers of most towering historical figures. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act, the quantity and quality of scholarship on MLK is excellent. From the sweeping work of Taylor Branch, David Garrow and Clayborne Carson, to scores of academic monographs that visit different aspects of King’s political development, there is no shortage of important reading material. Lamentably, there is still no great movie—no biopic that measures up to Spielberg’s Lincoln or Attenborough’s Gandhi—works that humanize their subjects without betraying fidelity to historical rigor. Paramount Pictures and filmmaker Ava DuVernay clearly hoped to fill that void with Selma. Regrettably, they fell short by a mile.

As a movie, Selma has a lot to offer. The acting is marvelous (David Oyelowo captures MLK every bit as well as Daniel Day-Lewis imagined Lincoln), the cinematography is striking and—much credit to the director—the violence is startlingly real and intimate. Scenes depicting the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the massacre at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the murder of James Reeb are very difficult to watch. As they should be.

But from a historical perspective, Selma is a deeply flawed work. The film has already provoked considerable debate, particularly around the question of Lyndon Johnson’s role in pressing for federal voting rights legislation. On a more fundamental level, it mingles real, verifiable events with conspiratorial fiction. And for a film about a pivotal moment in MLK’s life, it obscures too much of King’s political and personal genius. The events at Selma stood at the juncture of every theological and practical dilemma that King grappled with in his public career: The limits and utility of nonviolence. The balance between civil disobedience and civil society. How an activist stays politically relevant. Selma skims the surface of these questions, but it never gets to the core.

***

Selma opens in late 1964, when King traveled to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. By that date, the historical record shows, he had already determined to stage his next campaign in Selma—the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, where black residents comprised over half the population but only about 2 percent of registered voters.

King’s strategy was at once simple and complicated. Since Congress had six months earlier passed the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in employment, schools and places of public accommodation, the movement had renewed its focus on voting rights—a giant piece of the civil rights puzzle that still required legislative remedy. From a numbers perspective, the decision made sense. As King explained to readers of the New York Times, “Selma has succeeded in limiting Negro registration to the snail’s pace of about 145 persons a year. At this rate, it would take 103 years to register the 15,000 eligible Negro voters of Dallas County.”

Most liberals understood that securing access to the ballot box necessarily comprised an important part of the “Great Society.” Indeed, in a phone conversation on January 15, 1965, Lyndon Johnson named voting rights as a centerpiece of the civil rights agenda and counseled King to galvanize support by “find[ing] the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina … And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can … then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.” (From the context of their conversation, it doesn’t appear that LBJ understood that King had already found his “one illustration.”)

On a more fundamental level, Selma was a hornet’s nest of racial violence. King’s own notes explain his thinking: 1. “nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights”; 2. “racists resist by unleashing violence against them”; 3. “Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation”; 4. “the Administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation.”

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been active in Selma since 1962, but now King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned to join the fray and “dramatize the situation to arouse the federal government by marching by the thousands to the places of registration.”

True to form, local authorities took the bait. Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark clapped over 2,000 activists in jail by the end of February 1965 and empowered his officers to rain down unspeakable violence on peaceful protesters. On February 18, state troopers beat and shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 25-year-old voting rights demonstrator. When Jackson died eight days later of his wounds, movement leaders conceived a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, where they would voice their grievances on the steps of the state capitol. The campaign’s climactic moment occurred on Bloody Sunday—March 7, 1965—when state and county law enforcement officers savagely attacked roughly 500 peaceful marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Actually, the word savage doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened that morning. Mounted policemen employed tear gas, electric prods, horse whips and batons wrapped in barbed wire. They pursued marchers who were running desperately in retreat. In 1965, news footage still needed to be flown to New York for national broadcast. That evening, ABC won the race. When the network broke into its regularly scheduled program—the television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg—millions of viewers were confronted with gut-wrenching scenes that jarred the nation’s conscience.

Two more marches ensued—one, led by King, in which protesters proceeded to the bridge, knelt, prayed and turned back; and another, which culminated in a historic trek to Montgomery. Lyndon Johnson spoke before a rare joint session of Congress and demanded voting rights legislation. And the rest, as they say, was history. Except not in Selma.

***

Movies need to assume some creative license, and a few small embellishments or errors don’t necessarily sink a great enterprise, unless they are emblematic of deeper interpretive flaws. In this case, they are.

Since the film’s release on December 25, critics like Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, and Joseph Califano, a senior White House aide to Lyndon Johnson, have lashed out at DuVernay for her treatment of LBJ. In the film, they point out, LBJ is portrayed as King’s bitter antagonist—strongly opposed to compromising his sweeping domestic policy agenda by endorsing a controversial voting rights bill. Indeed, in Selma, LBJ’s character resolutely insists that he won’t touch voting rights in 1965. In real life, he informed King that he preferred to wait until that spring, by which time he expected to ram several important health, education and welfare bills through Congress. By the time this conversation occurred, his aides had been debating how and when to tackle the ballot box for several months. As early as February 28, LBJ already had Justice Department lawyers at work crafting policy options on voting rights. The distance between LBJ and MLK was a matter of weeks, not years.

DuVernay called the criticism “jaw dropping” and “offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it [Selma] so.” “Bottom line,” she continued, “is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”

DuVernay is entirely correct that Lyndon Johnson did not originate the Selma campaign. King decided on and launched the initiative well before his January 15 phone call with the president. But Updegrove and Califano only scratch the surface when they insist, correctly, that LBJ was committed to passing a voting rights bill in 1965 and that he relied on King to help build consensus for such legislation. More problematic than what the film ignores is what it invents out of whole cloth.

In Selma, LBJ instructs FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to coerce King out of Dallas County and away from voting rights. Deep into events, and with Johnson’s consent, the FBI mails to King’s home a tape recording of the civil rights leader engaged in an extramarital tryst. Moviegoers in the Upper West Side theater where I saw the film were deeply shocked and offended—shocked that the president of the United States would conspire to blackmail a civil rights hero, and offended that he did so in the service of choking off a peaceful campaign to secure voting rights for American citizens. The audible gasps from the audience contributed to the scene’s fundamental tension.

But here’s the hitch: It never happened. At least not that way. Hoover—arguably one of the most deranged and dangerous characters in the annals of American history—did in fact engage in extensive, extralegal surveillance of King’s hotel rooms, office and phone lines. (For that, by the way, we can thank Robert Kennedy, the attorney general who approved some of the taps—not Lyndon Johnson.) Hoover’s agents caught King in multiple incidents of extramarital sex; and they did send a compilation tape to his home, along with a bizarre, anonymous letter suggesting that he commit suicide to avoid public exposure and disgrace. But there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that LBJ knew about, let alone ordered, these actions.

Moreover, the FBI sent the now famous “suicide letter” (and accompanying tape) to King on November 21, 1964; it lay unopened and buried under a stack of unread mail in King’s house until January 5. That day, Coretta Scott King accidentally opened the package and listened to the recording. What ensued between husband and wife was not pleasant. But all of this occurred well before the climactic events at Selma, and the historical record strongly suggests that Hoover was acting (and Hoover most always did) of his own accord.

The events surrounding Selma were dramatic enough by their own right—and LBJ was a sufficiently complicated person and politician, with motives both Machiavellian and pure—that it’s unclear why the filmmakers chose to thicken the plot.

Matthew Yglesias of Vox believes that critics of Selma deplore the film because “it doesn’t cast LBJ as the hero of the Voting Rights Act. But the fact that Selma doesn’t do this is part of what makes it important. Hollywood too often gives us films about race in America where the real heroes are conveniently white. Selma doesn’t.” This criticism misses the mark. The controversy over Selma should not be reduced to a debate about whether black activists exercised political agency. Of course they did. The deeper problem is that the movie doesn’t always get its portrayal of black activists right.

In fact, Selma’s treatment of black student activists is at times oddly patronizing. Early in the film, SCLC staff members James Bevel and Diane Nash warn King that he will face sharp opposition from SNCC activists who had been on the ground for over two years. The script would have you believe that these three adults considered the kids a well-meaning nuisance—teenage hotheads who were committed to the cause but lacking in political savvy. The scene is almost as patronizing as the fatherly dressing-down that King delivers to SNCC’s national chairman John Lewis several frames later.

In reality, the dynamic between King (who was in his mid-30s) and the students (many of whom were in their mid-20s) was dynamic and complex. Bevel and Nash would not likely have been derisive of SNCC or Lewis. The three activists were longtime friends and had formed the nucleus of the lunch counter sit-in movement in Nashville; they were all co-founders of SNCC. Though now members of King’s SCLC staff, Nash and Bevel were hardly institutional players. They were a radical and polarizing force within King’s inner circle. It was Bevel who first prodded King to send schoolchildren into the streets during the Birmingham campaign, a deeply controversial tactic that many older activists deplored. Within the movement, Nash was widely regarded as a stubbornly unyielding character. King kept them around because of, not despite, their edge.

To be sure, many younger activists in SNCC considered King a grandstander—they privately called him “De Lawd,” criticized his top-down leadership approach and thought there was no more dangerous a place to stand than between the preacher and a news camera. But MLK occupied a generational middle ground in the civil rights movement: Older leaders of the national NAACP abhorred his street tactics and took every opportunity to discredit and diminish him, some even going so far as to furnish the FBI with unflattering intelligence on the SCLC and its leader. King knew of condescension from elder black statesmen, and while he sometimes misfired, he made every attempt to work with the students. In Selma, he would have taken great care to take them seriously and win their support.

Moreover, by 1965 there was nothing immature about SNCC’s political sensibilities. Student activists understood how to channel and manipulate political power. From the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960, which brought businesses and local governments to their knees, to Freedom Summer, which forced a national political crisis, they were deft masters of protest, organization and pressure.

Selma does the students a disservice by unnecessarily subordinating their contribution to King’s. As with the film’s needless slander of Lyndon Johnson, the movie presupposes that credit is a zero-sum game. In reality, King deserves the lion’s share, but there’s still plenty of it to go around.

***

Much of Selma hinges on two plot lines: King’s struggle with Lyndon Johnson, and his attempt to save his marriage. In this regard, the film sacrifices as much to accuracy as to ambition. The movie suggests that King missed the first Selma march because he was desperately trying to repair his relationship with Coretta, who had just listened to an incriminating tape of her husband. But the famous “suicide letter” incident occurred many weeks before Bloody Sunday, and King’s reasons for skipping the march were more complicated.

In part, MLK took seriously several credible threats against his life; it does him no disservice to acknowledge that he was a prominent assassination target and weighed the risks associated with a four-day trek through the Alabama countryside. More importantly, King was loath to march until a federal judge could be convinced to void Gov. George Wallace’s ban against the procession. And this is a key point.

As historian Harvard Sitcoff explained, by 1965, King’s nonviolent philosophy, deeply influenced by Gandhi, had evolved from “satyagraha, peaceful persuasion to change the hearts and minds of oppressors, to duragraha, tactical nonviolence as an effective means to coerce a demanded end. Once an ethic, nonviolence was now a tactic.” In his early days as a movement leader, King led the citizens of Montgomery in an act of withdrawal—the decision not to buy bus tickets. It was coercive, but passively so. Between 1963 and 1965, nonviolence became an active course, calculated to manufacture chaos and disorder. He was essentially giving white America a choice: Follow the letter and spirit of its own laws, or face the collapse of the country’s civil and political institutions.

To argue credibly that white Americans should obey the law, King knew that civil rights activists needed also to adhere to it. In Letter from Birmingham Jail, he grappled with the tension between civil disobedience and commitment to civil society. “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws,” he wrote. “This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. … The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”

The implications of this argument were radical, for who was to decide which laws were just, and which were unjust?

King skipped the first Selma march, in part because he wanted to cloak his actions in the approval of the federal judiciary—not because his wife was angry with him. In the film, he makes a flash decision to turn the second march around out of concern for the safety of his followers. This representation, too, is problematic. In reality, King had been negotiating quietly with federal officials and White House emissaries. He knew that he had to stage some form of protest to release the pent-up frustration of his activists, but he did not want to violate Judge Frank Johnson’s temporary injunction against a march. The turnaround tactic, originally suggested by one of LBJ’s envoys, was an elegant way to thread the needle.

There may be no public figure in modern American history as deeply steeped in, and serious about, ideas as Martin Luther King. In an era when post-adolescent fascination with Ayn Rand passes as serious thinking, we should be in awe of King’s deep engagement with Mahatma Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber. King challenged us to think. That’s a difficult attribute to capture in a movie. Selma tries, but doesn’t succeed.

***

Selma may have missed the mark, but that doesn’t stop us from looking back critically on the events that took place half a century ago. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in restaurants, hotels and all other places of public accommodation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed most of the remaining obstacles to black electoral participation, reordered daily life in the 11 former states of the Confederacy as well as border states like Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Delaware. As late as 1965, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans in Mississippi and 19 percent in Alabama had surmounted the complex of legal and extralegal measures in place to prevent them from exercising the franchise. But Southern resistance crumbled in the wake of congressional action. By 1970, roughly two-thirds of African-Americans in these Deep South states were registered to vote. White Southerners now had to grapple with the long-term prospect of black representation at all levels of government, and with the more immediate reality of political power sharing. Edgar Morton, a state legislator from Louisiana, marveled that he had “never shook hands with a black person before I ran for office … the first time I shook hands it was a traumatic thing.”

Jim Crow had not simply been about political power and physical separation. It was a way of thinking and living. “Desegregation was absolutely incomprehensible to the average southerner,” said an attorney from Greensboro, “absolutely unbelievable.” “How can I destroy the lingering faces of Stepin Fetchit, Amos & Andy, Buckwheat and all the others?” wondered a college student from North Carolina. “[My] world view is still strongly rooted in … a rural, agrarian, black-belt county, which is, in many ways, the same way as it was in 1900.” One Arkansan observed that “[r]acism permeated every aspect of our lives, from little black Sambo … in the first stories read to us, to the warning that drinking coffee before the age of sixteen would turn us black. It was part of the air everyone breathed.”

Observing the scene outside Montgomery’s Jefferson Davis Hotel in March 1965, the irascible New York City newspaperman Jimmy Breslin wrote, “You have not lived in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing ‘…we are not afraid…’ and then turn and look at the face of the cop near her and see the puzzlement, and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over.”

“This thing here is a revolution,” a white businessman confided to Breslin. “And some of us know it. The world’s passed all of us by … unless we start to live with it.”

The events of 50 years ago left a profound mark on American history. Getting right with that history requires fidelity to what occurred and a deep understanding why it happened. Anything short of that standard will not do.

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The FBI vs. Martin Luther King: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s “Suicide Letter” to Civil Rights Leader

Democracy Now   November 18, 2014

It was 50 years ago today that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made headlines by calling Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the “most notorious liar in the country.” Hoover made the comment in front of a group of female journalists ahead of King’s trip to Oslo where he received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest recipient of the prize. While Hoover was trying to publicly discredit King, the agency also sent King an anonymous letter threatening to expose the civil rights leader’s extramarital affairs. The unsigned, typed letter was written in the voice of a disillusioned civil rights activist, but it is believed to have been written by one of Hoover’s deputies, William Sullivan. The letter concluded by saying, “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. … You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” The existence of the so-called “suicide letter” has been known for years, but only last week did the public see the unredacted version. We speak to Yale University professor Beverly Gage, who uncovered the unredacted letter.

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America’s conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

From 9/11 to McCarthyism, we have a long history of conspiracy theories — and government acts have encouraged them

Salon. com  November 3, 2014

America's conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

(Credit: AP/Seth Wenig/Bridget Besaw Gorman)

Hey, did you hear that President Obama purposefully allowed Ebola to enter the United States so America will be more like Africa?

That’s what conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said earlier this month, after the first Ebola case reached our shores. In the darker corners of the Internet, others suggested that Obama was spreading Ebola to justify the imposition of martial law; still others charged that government health officials had conspired with pharmaceutical companies to foster the disease and then to hawk a vaccine to cure it.

How could anyone believe that our government would plot to harm its own citizens? Because it’s happened before. Over the past century, the American federal government has repeatedly conspired against the people who elect it. And that’s why so many people suspect that the same thing is happening now.

From 1932 until 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service denied potentially lifesaving treatment to syphilitic African-American men as part of a study of their disease. And starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly tested LSD and other drugs on psychiatric patients. It also hired prostitutes to lure unwitting patrons to CIA safe houses, where the agency slipped LSD into their drinks and observed their reactions.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally wiretapped and harassed thousands of civil rights and antiwar activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI even sent a tape recording of King making love with one of his mistresses to his office, where the package was opened by his wife.

Then came Watergate, when President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to spy on their political enemies and then conspired to cover all of it up. And the 1980s brought the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which federal officials sold arms to Iran and illegally funneled the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

And when the government wasn’t conspiring against Americans, it was spreading false conspiracy theories of its own. The great master of the genre was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who blamed the Yalta accords, the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and the Communist takeover of China on “Reds” inside America. Indeed, McCarthy charged, the so-called fall of China reflected “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Yes, a small handful of duplicitous Americans passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. But the idea of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States was itself a lie, hatched by McCarthy and others to whip Americans into a frenzy of fear.

To combat accusations of his own conspiratorial activities, meanwhile, Nixon spread false conspiracies about his predecessors. One Nixon aide faked a cable implicating John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, then leaked it to the press.

In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finally, the George W. Bush administration invented a conspiracy between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Just hours after the attacks Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to investigate Saddam’s role in them, turning aside Clarke’s protests that “al Qaeda did this.” Then Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to declare that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attack, even though FBI agents found records indicating that Atta was in the United States around that time.

No wonder that over one-third of surveyed Americans in 2006 said that the Bush administration had either planned the 9/11 attacks or knew about them beforehand and did nothing to stop them. And after so many years of government conspiracies, real and invented, no one should be surprised when Americans announce that Ebola, too, is a plot by their government.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence whatsoever for the claims about President Obama spreading Ebola. The people who spread these lies are reprehensible demagogues, and we should do everything that we can to expose them as such.

But we should also keep challenging government secrecy and duplicity, which provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. After last year’s revelations that the government was secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans, whether they were suspected of a crime or not, many Americans got a bit more suspicious of their government. Didn’t you?

When the government creates conspiracies, it encourages the rest of us to do the same. But if it’s transparent, we’re more likely to trust it.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

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MLK’s Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley

HNN November 2, 2014

 

157350-MKVTA.jpg

King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul on April 27, 1967 (Wikipedia)

When machines and computers, profit motives and property

rights, are considered more important than people, the giant

triplets of racism, extreme poverty, and militarism are

incapable of being conquered.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” April 4, 1967

Most Americans remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s America, as the inspiring orator who spoke of his dream of equality on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But many know little of how Dr. King evolved and how his vision widened after his “I Have a Dream” speech on that hot August day. By the last year of his life, he was speaking out against the war in Vietnam and institutionalized racism, and he called openly for a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Award-winning writer and broadcaster Tavis Smiley reminds a new generation of Americans of Dr. King’s tumultuous final days and progressive vision in his poignant new book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (with co-author David Ritz; Little, Brown and Company). For a full understanding of Dr. King, Mr. Smiley urges, Americans must get beyond the stereotype of a civil rights leader and see Dr. King in his full dimension as a human rights advocate with powerful ideas on community, peace and justice.

Mr. Smiley details Dr. King’s activities from his fiery public speech against the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, to his death in Memphis, Tennessee, a year later to the day. Dr. King made his last journey to Memphis to support a strike of underpaid, mostly black city garbage workers. He saw the campaign in Memphis as a prelude to his final dream, a Poor People’s March on Washington to mobilize Americans across racial and class lines to reverse a national cycle of urban conflict and propose an economic bill of rights to end poverty.

In the book, Mr. Smiley recounts how Dr. King’s calls against the war and against materialism and poverty in his last year were denounced from nearly every quarter, even by his past allies including the president, the liberal press, and the black establishment—as well as members of his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. He was the target of assaults on his character and ideology as the FBI campaign to undermine him intensified and messages of hate and death threats were ordinary occurrences. Despite setback after setback complicated by periods of despondency, Mr. Smiley writes, Dr. King rose in the final year of his life to lead and address the racism, poverty and militarism that threaten, even still, to destroy our democracy.

In writing Death of a King, Mr. Smiley relied on archival and published sources as well as his own interviews with members of Dr. King’s family, including his wife Coretta Scott King and their children; with associates of Dr. King and his inner circle including Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson; and with three leading King biographers: Clayborne Carson, Taylor Branch and David Garrow.

Tavis Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS, as well as The Tavis Smiley Show from Public Radio International (PRI). In addition to his radio and television work, Smiley has written 16 other books, including his memoir, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, and with co-author Dr. Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. He was won numerous awards and honors for his broadcasting work and writing. Time magazine in 2009 named him one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” recognizing him for making “a significant difference in the world.”

Mr. Smiley recently spoke about his book by telephone during his book tour.

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to write about the last year of Dr. King’s life now?

Tavis Smiley: The short answer is that he has been so sanitized and so sterilized and even beatified that we really haven’t yet come to terms with the complexity of his character. We haven’t come to understand who he was.

We really come to know who we are in the dark and difficult days of our lives. If you think you know Dr. King and you have not come to know him in the darkest, most difficult days of his life, then you don’t yet know Dr. King. And the darkest, most difficult days of his life happened to be the very last year of his life.

If you’re stuck in 1963 with “I Have a Dream” and the March on Washington [you don’t know him]. He does live five years after that, and in that period, King evolves and morphs.

This is the story of the last year of his life that most Americans just don’t know when King must have felt that the cosmos had shifted against him. It’s a way of saying we have so deified him in death that we have no idea of how we demonized him in life. We helped to kill King because we abandoned him in the darkest, most difficult days of his life.

To illustrate, imagine a crowd of people and one person is pushed out from the crowd and stands there isolated and alone. It makes it easy to demonize, assault and attack that person and ultimately assassinate him because that person has been so disregarded. When I think about it, we helped to kill King because we abandoned him and isolated him and by isolating him we made it easy to take him out. That’s precisely what happened.

I want people to come to know the King that I know and come to love him for standing in his truth even when everybody turned on him.

Robin Lindley: You’ve mentioned that you discovered Dr. King’s words at age 12 when you were hospitalized. What happened to you and what did you find comforting about Dr. King’s message?

Tavis Smiley: I detail this story in my memoir What I Know for Sure. When I was 12, I was accused of doing something I hadn’t done. My father lost his temper and, rather than have a conversation about it, he snapped and beat me so severely that I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks in traction.

During that time, a member of my church gave me a gift—a box of recordings of MLK. Turns out that Berry Gordy of Motown fame had the good sense to have an engineer follow Dr. King and record many of his speeches. Years later, Berry Gordy put those speeches out on LPs. For whatever reason—I still do not know why—this member of my church gave me this box of King recordings as a gift.

King had long been dead at that time, but he saved my life. He brought me back to life, because of the love in his heart. King was talking to a nation about the power of love. He was saying it’s about the power of love, not the love of power. He was talking to a nation, but he might as well have been talking to a broken-spirited 12-year-old kid, because I heard him saying to me, “Tavis, you’re going to have to find a way to love your way through this situation. Hatred, bitterness and revenge are not options. You have to find a way to love your way through this ordeal.”

So Dr. King really saved my life. He became part of my DNA at age 12. All these years later—I just turned 50 in September—so on the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, I wanted this book out essentially as my love letter to him.

I’m saying to Americans, if you think you love Dr. King and you think you know him and respect him, then wait till you read this book about what happens to him in the last year of his life. He navigates a world where everything is trying to crush him, but he continues to tell his truth, continues to love, continues to serve. He doesn’t get bitter, doesn’t get vengeful. He continues to love people. He doesn’t demonize his haters. He actually feels sorry for his haters. He’s praying for his detractors.

This is the King we should all aspire to be, but it’s a story we don’t know.

Robin Lindley: Your book covers the last year of Dr. King’s life from his April 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech against the war to his death exactly one year later. I don’t think most people realize how radical Dr. King had become with his focus on militarism and economic justice as well as racism.

Tavis Smiley: He gets in trouble with a lot of people in 1967 with that “Beyond Vietnam” speech when he calls America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” And he goes on in the speech to tell America that our democracy is threatened if we don’t do something about the triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism.

People don’t know this story because King is frozen in a frame from 1963 when he talked about his dream. But when this book starts, in 1967, King is saying publically that that dream is now a nightmare for him. In ‘63, he was talking about integration, but by ‘67 is saying that he believes “we integrated into a burning house.” In ‘63, he was hopeful about America and her capacity to have her soul redeemed. He worked assiduously to redeem the soul of America after ‘63.

Many people don’t know this, but one of the last phone calls he made from the Lorraine Motel [in Memphis] where he was assassinated was back to his church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, to tell them that his sermon for the next Sunday would be entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.” He was not declaring America was going to hell. His thesis was going to be that, if we don’t get serious about the triple threat of racism and poverty and militarism, we are going to lose our democracy and America may go to hell.

When you try to tell people that the guy who made the “I Have a Dream Speech” was going to preach a sermon on “Why America May Go to Hell,” it’s difficult to juxtapose those two ideas because we have no idea of how he evolved in those last five years and how he was still willing to tell his truth a year after that “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

This is a year after all the hell, all the hate, everybody turning against him, and he was still going to stand up and preach a sermon called “Why America May Go to Hell.” That’s a commitment, a radical empathy. That’s the kind of deep and abiding love that most of us are not even capable of—or certainly we may be capable of, but have not achieved. I certainly haven’t.

Robin Lindley: You detail the ferocious reaction to Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, not only from the usual detractors, but from his former allies.

Tavis Smiley: The response to that speech was swift, certain and severe. The media turns on him—the liberal media and the black media turn on him. The White House turns on him. He had worked with Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but now [Johnson] turns against him.

The last Harris poll taken in Dr. King’s life showed that almost 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant and almost 60 percent of blacks thought he was irrelevant or obsolete or persona non grata.

In the last year of his life, the NAACP came out against him, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche, the only other Nobel Peace Prize winning black, came out against him. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful congressman, came out against him. [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall had no respect or regard for him.

In the book you’ll read how colleagues and co-workers turned against him. Indeed, in his own organization [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], he could not get them to support his position against the war in Vietnam. His own board of directors passed a resolution to condemn his position on the Vietnam War. And, as he was working to get the Poor People’s campaign off the ground, he couldn’t get SCLC to work on his campaign.

So he’s facing hell and hate on the inside and on the outside. J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI called him “the most dangerous man in America.” That’s always baffled me because how can you be the most dangerous man in America and the only weapon that you’re using is love? It says something about the potency of love then and even today.

Robin Lindley: Dr. King’s courage was remarkable. From the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott until his death in 1968, not only did he face death threats from rabid racists but the machinery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was geared to destroy him. Informants on his own staff spied on him for the FBI and his rooms were bugged and phones tapped wherever he traveled. And he was open about his schedule. It’s also stunning that the FBI’s campaign included drafting anti-King editorials that newspapers—such as the Memphis Commercial-Appeal—would run as their own.

Tavis Smiley: Yes, they’re writing editorials. And the FBI also sent Martin Luther King letters encouraging him to commit suicide. They said you’re not getting out of this alive, so why not just kill yourself. It’s ugly.

Robin Lindley: You interviewed Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist and expert on mood disorders, and he believes Dr. King displayed signs of a bipolar disorder.

Tavis Smiley: He has a book coming out next year with a psychological profile of King that will be quite controversial. He is going to make the point that, while King suffered mania and depression, research shows that people with mania and depression like King have the capacity for a greater sense of radical empathy. So what allowed King to be so radically empathetic and so loving to other people in part was the mania he suffered. That helped me understand how King could be so loving in the face of all that hatred. His mania played a role in that.

Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your account of Dr. King’s last year?

Tavis Smiley: This is the story about Dr. King that people don’t know that they need to know. And again, if you really want to know King and you think you love him and respect him, when you read this story [you see] how he gets up everyday against the odds, and continues to speak an unsettling, inconvenient truth, but a truth that America nonetheless needs to hear.

In many ways we honor him on the cheap. These monuments and holidays and postage stamps and his name on schools and streets are a beautiful thing and he deserves that. But King would much prefer that we deal with the triple threat he spoke of—racism, poverty and militarism—and try to save our democracy. So there’s work to be done.

He’s a shining example of what the best of America looks like. I believe that the future of this democracy is inextricably linked with how seriously we take his legacy and I regard that legacy as one of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people.

I hope this book is a small down payment to thank him first of all for saving my life and, as importantly, showing America what we can be if we get serious about the threats to our democracy.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney, and the features editor for the History News Network. His work has also appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Writers Chronicle, Documentary, and other publications. He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com. Most of his legal work has been in the public sector. He served as a staff attorney on the investigation of Dr. King’s death with the Select Committee on Assassinations, U.S. House of Representatives (1977-1979).

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Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.
AFP/GETTY IMAGES

MLK’s Case for Reparations Included Disadvantaged Whites

Jonathan Rieder
The Root July 15, 2014

What does white America owe black America? To even broach that question 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seems straight-out wacky. Did not the election of a black president redeem the nation? At a minimum, it’s rude—refusing to avert the eyes from that elephant in the room: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy.” That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates deemed it recently in his extraordinary “The Case for Reparations.”

Far from fringe lunacy, the idea of a primal debt was obvious to Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly 50 years ago this month in Why We Can’t Wait, his Harper & Row account of the Birmingham, Ala., protests, he made his own impassioned case for compensation. And yet no matter how much he shared Coates’ desire to square accounts, King would settle on a rival solution for the crimes of slavery and all the forms of racism that succeeded it.

In the rapture of King’s crescendo at the March on Washington, it’s easy to forget the language of bankers that pervaded the first half of “I Have a Dream” (pdf): “America had defaulted on this promissory note” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One year later, in Why We Can’t Wait, he was not coy about the nation’s “need to pay a long overdue debt to its citizens of color.” He retold the story of his 1959 visit to India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recounted all the preferential policies that aided the untouchables: “This is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.”

Invoking the sacred precedent of “our fighting men [in World War ll]” who “had been deprived of certain advantages and opportunities,” King ticked off all the things—the GI Bill of Rights—that were done “to make up for this.” Then King pivoted and pounced: “Certainly the Negro has been deprived” and just as surely “robbed of the wages of his toil.” You didn’t need a course in logic to complete the syllogism.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not diminish King’s zeal for reparations. “Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule,” he told a mass meeting not long before his death. Instead, the nation left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery.” Calculating that $20 a week for the 4 million slaves would have added up to $800 billion, he noted acerbically, “They owe us a lot of money.”

The failure to repair thus added a new crime to the original one. It was like putting a man in jail and discovering his innocence years later: “And then you go up to him and say, ‘You are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money … to get on his feet in life again. Every code of jurisprudence would rise up against that.”

There was still one more twist in the torment to come. All those “white peasants from Europe” who enjoyed the largesse of land grants and low-interest loans “are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. … It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Are the progeny of those “white peasants” readier to reckon with our racist legacy? Thirty-five years ago, a Brooklyn, N.Y., woman fumed to me about the TV program Roots, “If they keep shoving that stuff down our throats, there’s never going to be peace. … that was over 200 years ago that this slavery bit was!”

Today, countless Americans think blacks have received compensation in the form of anti-poverty money and quotas. As one person told political consultant Stanley Greenberg (pdf), “Didn’t they get 40 acres and a mule? That’s more than I got.” West Indians and African immigrants, too, sometimes complain that black Americans are too racial, and many millennials who used to thrill to President Barack Obama’s exalted flights are preoccupied with their own plights and the grit of a post-Lehman Brothers economy.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of whites even reject apologies for slavery, which cost nothing save one’s dignity. Many of the supporters of affirmative action whom Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman queried in the 1990s endorsed the remedy only if blacks were not its sole recipients and the rationale was universal: “help people who are out of work” rather than “because of the historic injustices blacks have suffered.”

It’s possible that attaching a race to the injustice made the respondents squirm. Perhaps it forced whites to dwell on this unsettling fact: Our success in part is a windfall, reaped from the access black exclusion gave us to jobs, slots in housing markets and much else.

In truth, white psyches and circumstances are too varied to sustain such generalities. The woman who recoiled from “that slavery bit” didn’t lack empathy. She filled up with emotion as she observed, “The blacks were treated worse than animals; they were taken up from their own happy soil.” When Greenberg returned to McComb County, Mich. (pdf), before the 2008 election, some of the same Reagan Democrats (or their children) who had seen blacks as the source of all their ills in the 1980s and heard Jesse Jackson’s “Our time has come” as “Your time is over,” could now acknowledge America’s special burden: “We did hold them back, and a lot of people were cheated.” As for Sniderman’s respondents, likely many of them saw universalism as a different, equally righteous take on healing and helping.

Maybe, then, it’s best to settle for those modest moral advances, especially if that’s the price of any coalition of conscience that might some day be motivated to remedy the ills of suffering Americans. Better to leave the fuller atonement to those Deep South museums that have confronted their louche local past; people who exit Twelve Years a Slave in turmoil; lawsuits seeking compensation for specific violations like the racist rampage in Tulsa, Okla. Anything more perfect might be the enemy of the good, even the moral good.

 

Ultimately, in the very chapter of Why We Can’t Wait in which he laid out the justice of reparations, King rejected the idea of recompense for blacks alone. It’s not that he was prepared to abandon this equation of restorative justice: The nation that did something special against the Negro had to do something special for him.

But the special thing that King proposed—“A gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial”—left plenty of room for white “veterans” in the mix. He offered solace to the least of these, no matter what their complexion. Inevitably, there was a shrewdness to this inclusion, part of the effort to woo white allies and crystallize the liberal coalition on race that had been growing since Birmingham. It was also, King underlined, “a simple matter of justice.”

Already in 1964, King was looking beyond the Civil Rights Act. He could grasp its limited power to effect “improvements” in the Negro’s “way of life.” He could see that rights and respect might arrive more quickly than economic equality. He could also see that however much white supremacy left blacks vulnerable to inimical forces, the forces could be unsentimentally free of bigotry and wreak havoc on whites and blacks alike.

At the March on Washington, King invited whites to join the  “we” who could sing, “Free at last … we are free at last,” and thus share in bondage and deliverance. He did something just as generous inWhy We Can’t Wait. Likely it took a Christian whose idea of a fair exchange was blessing those who curse you to offer poor and middling Southern whites this face-saving gift: He defined them not as beneficiaries of white supremacy but as “victims of slavery” who suffered their own “derivative bondage.” This wasn’t masochism talking, but a faith at once hard-boiled and brimming with grace.

What, then, about balancing the ledger for specifically black injuries? Throughout Why We Can’t Wait, there are hints that resolving matters of policy and politics didn’t still all the feelings churning within King. “A price can be placed on unpaid wages,” he underlined, but “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries.” He rejected an easy “four-minute atonement” as inadequate to “400 years of sinning.”

Atone, you sinners! That is the sound of the muffled voice of the preacher rising up through the printed page. And in the end it seems Coates, too, is seeking something similar: recognition as much as reparations; “not a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe” but “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”

King harbored no illusions that whites as a whole had the moral gumption to undergo that ordeal. In the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, he observed, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”

The evidence for pessimism only intensified as 1964 unfolded. George Wallace broke out of his Southern lair. White backlash quickened in the North. By 1968 King could warn, “a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp … could put black people in concentration camps.”

And so, in the absence of full justice, the preacher could be a chastising prophet, who once told a mass meeting: “Do you know that in America the white man sought to annihilate the Indian, literally to wipe him out, and he made a national policy that said in substance, the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Now, a nation that got started like that has a lot of repentin’ to do.”

But even rebuke did not close the case. There remained the work of memory and mourning. King never stopped honoring that history, whose pain could not be fully assuaged by rebuke or recognition. In the refuge of a black church, in the nurturant embrace of his people, he grieved: “We read on the Statue of Liberty that America is the mother of exiles.” But whites “never evinced the maternal care and concern for its black exiles who were brought to this nation in chains. And isn’t it the ultimate irony … that the Negro could sing in one of its sorrow songs, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’”

As the audience erupted in applause, King demanded, “What sense of estrangement, what sense of rejection, what sense of hurt could cause a people to use such a metaphor?”

Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author most recently of Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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HNN   November 18, 2013
Image via Wiki Commons.

In a recent piece entitled JFK Holds Complex Place in Black History, AP writer Jesse Washington attempts to explain the unique bond African Americans shared with the thirty-fifth president. According to Washington, since his murder in November of 1963, Kennedy has enjoyed a special place in many African American households, pictured prominently in art and iconography with Jesus and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Although he makes an interesting case for why Kennedy holds this special place, both his conclusions and understanding of John Kennedy’s relationship with the African American community are insufficient.

First and foremost, he misidentifies the popular threesome often depicted in portraits and paintings from the period. As I recall from my own youth during frequent visits to both my grandparents, as well as friends homes, the ubiquitous portrait of Jesus always enjoyed a privileged and separate place. It was not the Christ, but the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, who shared space with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. This is significant, as we pause to reflect on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK, for in reality it was not John alone, but the Kennedy brothers who shared a special bond with the black community.

As Washington and many of the scholars he interviewed readily admit, few today associate President Kennedy with the more profound victories associated with the civil rights movement. In reality, he proved lukewarm on civil rights. In most cases, he had to be forced into action; he responded too slowly — for example, to the violence visited upon civil rights demonstrators during the Freedom Rides in 1961 and in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

But African Americans who lived through the turbulent decade of the 60s, rarely mention President Kennedy without also referencing his brother. From the time John entered the White House, with Bobby serving as his attorney general, the Kennedys became fixed in the public imagination. In his capacity as head of the Justice Department, Bobby spearheaded much of the action on the civil rights front, but even this does not account for his place on the mantle of many homes.

For it is less what the Kennedys did while in office, but rather the frustration of hope they came to represent in death that defined them for a generation of Americans. In April of 1993, Life Magazine, in an issue dedicated to Bobby and Martin, succinctly captured the other Kennedy’s close association with the leader of the civil rights movement. “Twenty-five years after their deaths,” the caption noted, “we remember what they meant to us – and imagine what might have been.”

The key word here, of course, is “imagine.” In reality, the Kennedys barely lived up to the expectations fairly or unfairly placed on them. In life, the relationship was much more complicated. John and Bobby Kennedy supported civil rights, but it was also the Kennedy administration, prompted by the FBI, that first authorized wiretaps on Dr. King.

In office, John was the master of the political gesture. On the campaign trail in 1960, he raised hopes by intervening on behalf of King while he languished in jail. Like other politicians before him, he pleaded for patience once in office, famously calling for a cooling off period during the Freedom Rides. Notably, he delivered key speeches to indicate the administration’s unqualified support for desegregation in 1963. Though slow, the timeliness of his pronouncements and actions should not be dismissed although his cautious approach to the civil rights revolution taking place perturbed more radical voices within the African American community. Malcolm X was especially critical of Kennedy’s stance on the civil rights bill and later characterized his assassination as a case of “chickens come home to roost.”

In death, however, Kennedy took on the role of martyr, especially after the Johnson administration sought to frame the Civil Rights Act as a tribute to the slain president, helping to solidify his place in the movement’s greatest legislative victory.

It was in the wake of on the MLK assassination in April of 1968 that Bobby Kennedy emerged as the nation’s new dreamer. His strong identification with the poor and disaffected boosted his popularity among African Americans. His decision to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency once again raised expectations.

His assassination, eighty-one days into the campaign, sealed the place of the Kennedys American history. In death, especially in the African American community, the brothers were elevated to the rank of martyrs, bookending King.

In death, King and the Kennedys remain important symbols of the power of hope and the promise of a just democracy.

Even today, Bobby Kennedy’s powerful affirmation of hope as a pathway to justice is often commemorated during Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” Kennedy explained in 1966, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” Those “ripples” he concluded” build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” It is the ripples of hope that the lives of each of these men, imperfect as they were, represent for African Americans and why for so many years they have shared a privileged place in the hearts and minds of so many.

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

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