Monday, February 14, 2011

A Prophet Without Honor in His Country: The Troubled Last Months of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the emotional and psychological pressures faced by civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last months of his life.

The brief moment of good feeling created by President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1968 withdrawal from the race and the announcement of peace talks with North Vietnam would shatter at the hands of an assassin on April 4. By 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., had spent decades staring into the chasm of death. The sense of doom that seemed to envelope him in his final months did not make his murder in Memphis, Tennessee any less shocking.

As enumerated by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, King’s brushes with mortality included two impulsive, youthful attempts at suicide. On January 30, 1956, unknown assailants firebombed King’s home during the ultimately successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Eleven months later someone fired a shotgun at his door. Five weeks after that came another bombing attempt, the would-be murderer planting a dozen sticks of dynamite on his front porch. On September 20, 1958, a mentally unbalanced woman who believed that King’s civil rights activism was placing African Americans such as herself in danger named Izola Ware Curry stabbed King deeply with a letter opener during a book signing at Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem. The blade came perilously close to severing King’s aorta.

During a speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1962, a large Neo-Nazi marched to the stage and began beating King. He spoke quietly and calmly to the attacker even as the blows continued. When shocked SCLC members finally subdued the white supremacist, King pleaded with them, “Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him! We need to pray for him.” Throughout his life as a civil rights leader, he received death threats. Planes he boarded had to be checked for bombs.

By early 1968, King battled not just mortality but deepening depression. He knew the FBI was harassing and spying on him and he felt increasingly isolated from some former white supporters and from many younger people in the black community. His rival, the fiery Muslim minister Malcolm X (assassinated in 1965), had mocked King’s non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, calling it unmanly for those he derided as “so-called Negroes” to accept the taunts and the blows of white racists during sit-in campaigns.

Malcolm’s critique of King’s movement was picked up by a younger generation of Black Nationalists. Men like Stokely Carmichael led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a black civil rights group which had expelled white members in order to chart a course free of white domination. Carmichael, who coined the phrase “Black Power!” as a rallying cry, belittled King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, which financially relied on donations from sympathetic white liberals. In August 1967 H. Rap Brown, a chairman of SNCC, traveled to Cambridge, Maryland where local Ku Klux Klansman and other white racists had recently demonstrated against black civil rights and urged a black audience to “Burn this town down . . . where you tear down the white man, brother, you are hitting him in the money . . . Don’t love him to death. Shoot him to death.” That night African Americans in Cambridge rose up for a night of arson and looting.

As his detractors questioned his methods and his manhood, the Baptist minister King might have thought of the comments attributed to Jesus in Mark 6:4. “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” King continued to insist that, “There is a masculinity and strength in nonviolence,” but white assaults against African Americans made King’s advocacy of peaceful protest difficult to sustain.

By 1968, King also faced verbal assaults, and harassment from law enforcement, because of his decision to expand his crusades from assaults on discrimination to the problem of poverty and the tragedy of the Vietnam War. He not only charged that the war drained badly needed money from the president’s avowed war on poverty but said that the violence used by the American government in Vietnam spawned a general social sickness that manifested in urban riots.

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems,” King said. “They asked me if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted . . . I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government . . . Somehow, this madness must cease.” King urged his listeners who objected to the war who got snared in the military draft to claim conscientious objector status. For the first time, Northern liberal editorialists blasted King with the venom he usually received from Southern segregationists. Life magazine questioned the presumption of a black pastor to question American foreign policy. King “goes beyond his personal right to dissent when he connects progress in civil rights here with a proposal that amounts to abject surrender in Vietnam.”


By 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had spent almost 14 years trying to destroy King. Hoover had led the agency, originally known as the Bureau of Investigation, since 1924. Hoover had grown up in segregated Washington, D.C., and his attitude towards blacks reflected a white Southern cultural background. Hoover “believed blacks were basically lazy and unreliable,” according to biographer Richard Hack. “He was, if nothing else, a gentleman of the Old South who believed that blacks were fine ‘in their place,’ which to Hoover meant as servants, handymen, laborers, and field workers.” The FBI’s hiring practices reflected Hoover’s personal racist values. Until his death in the 1970s, the FBI was “basically an all-white organization,” as Hack observes.

The few blacks who had been hired by the Bureau worked exclusively for Hoover. James Crawford, his chauffeur, was expected to be on call around the clock, and even worked weekends at the director’s home on general maintenance and gardening – on FBI wages . . . Hoover had a black driver at his exclusive disposal in Los Angeles and another in Miami. [These were] the black men of the FBI.

Inevitably, Hoover’s racism and paternalism would influence the FBI’s relationship with African Americans generally and the Civil Rights Movement and its most prominent leader specifically. At the start of the civil rights movement he advised the Eisenhower administration that white Southern parents had a reasonable fear of black students attending the same schools as their children, where they would share bathrooms and gymnasiums with white students, because “colored parents are not as careful in looking after the health and cleanliness of their children.”

Unwilling to believe that blacks could analyze the problems they faced in American society and create a movement of their own to address those issues, the FBI director decided that men like King had to be puppets of the Soviet government. Hoover’s 1958 book "Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in the America and How to Fight It" devoted a chapter called "Communism and Minorities" to the insidious dangers posed by the civil rights movement. Communists infiltrated groups such as the NAACP in order to exploit racial tensions and thereby undermine American society, Hoover claimed. "The Party's sole interest, as most American Negroes know, is to hoodwink the Negro, to exploit him and use him as a tool to build a communist America," Hoover concluded.

King obsessed Hoover. The director focused on King’s relationship with Stanley Levinson, who in the early 1950s had given the Communist Party USA financial advice. Levinson later severed his relationship with the group. Hack, however, writes that Hoover held fast to the idea of “once a communist, always a communist.” Both with and without the legal authorization of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, authorized the wiretapping of Levinson’s phones and those of the SCLC.

Agents also tapped the phones in the hotel rooms occupied by King and other civil rights leaders. This continued in spite of an internal FBI report prepared by Assistant Director William C. Sullivan which, Hack writes, “categorically denied that the Communist Party had any involvement in the civil rights movement . . . and was ‘unable to control or direct it.” FBI harassment increased after release of the report, particularly as a result of King’s successful March on Washington in August 1963.

Hoover had remained director of the FBI in spite of abundant evidence of his incompetence. The director was slow to respond to the rise of gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger in the 1930s, had insisted that the Mafia did not exist even as organized crime took over several cities in the 1940s and 1950s, and had spent the McCarthy era wasting agency resources chasing a mass communist conspiracy that proved to be a phantom.

Part of the secret of his survival, in spite of his widely rumored homosexuality, was his exploitation of the FBI to spy on the sexual habits of the most powerful figures in Washington, D.C. Agents placed microphones in hotel walls and mattresses and snapped secret pictures documenting affairs and sexual preferences, information that ended up in Hoover’s “Obscene File,” a compilation of erotic dirt on those who could cause the director trouble.

Presidents, senators and congressmen feared crossing Hoover for decades. This was one way that Hoover convinced Bobby Kennedy to agree to wiretapping King. The attorney general’s brother, President John Kennedy, had numerous affairs. Some presented danger to more than just President Kennedy’s political future and the health of his marriage. One girlfriend, Judith Exner, was also the mistress of Mafia boss Sam Giancana. More seriously, another mistress, Ellen Rometsch, was also an East German spy. Though he disliked and distrusted the FBI director, Robert Kennedy thought it best to keep Hoover happy.

This made the Kennedy administration the unwilling partner in Hoover’s private war against King, a war that continued after Johnson took office. On January 5, 1964, King and his lieutenants checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., and FBI agents planted a microphone in his suite. At the same time, King’s face appeared on Time Magazine’s cover as the publication’s “Man of the Year,” the FBI recorded King, other officials from the SCLC and two women drinking and having sex. According to Hack, Hoover listened to parts of the tape in his office and, in a celebratory mood, declared, “This will destroy the burrhead.”

After Hoover briefed President Johnson on the matter, LBJ suggested that the information should be made available to the press “for the good of the country.” To Hoover’s frustration, however, the press did not take the bait. Hoover raged when King’s stature increased upon winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Unable to smear him publicly, Hoover sought to frighten King out of politics. With the director’s approval, the FBI anonymously sent a package to King that contained an edited audiotape of King’s extramarital sexual encounters with a threatening letter:

"King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud, and a great liability to all of us Negroes . . . King, like all frauds, your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age, have turned out not to be a leader, but a moral imbecile . . . The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant, Catholic, and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast . . . You are done. King, there is only one thing for you to do. You know what it is."

This extraordinary note, written by the leaders of a government law enforcement agency, sexually blackmailed a private citizen and, by implication, urged him to commit suicide. Such was the ruthless, criminal realm the nation’s top criminal investigator presided over.

By this time, Hoover had launched the COINTELPRO program. This program sought to disrupt and sew internal conflict within civil rights, Black Nationalist and anti-war groups that had violated no U.S. laws but simply drew the ire of Director Hoover. FBI agents infiltrated protest groups, spread false stories that movement leaders had committed crimes such as embezzlement, started sexual rumors aimed at creating conflict between activists, forwarded fake evidence that key leaders were actually police, FBI or CIA spies, and so on.

In the spring of 1968, his wife Coretta Scott King had already discovered the FBI blackmail letter and had listened to the enclosed tape. When Coretta underwent surgery to remove an abdominal tumor on January 24, 1968, King felt overwhelming guilt and confessed to an affair with one mistress, a relationship he described as almost like a second marriage. Mrs. King, vulnerable, in pain, and in fear about her health, reacted with anger and some of the minister’s friends accused King of being selfish in choosing that moment to bare his soul. His life had become gloomy and oppressive and he could find no island of solace or path of escape. Deeply sad and tired, King had every incentive to withdraw from public life in the spring of 1968. Instead, he pressed on.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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