Celebrating the Spirit of Martin Luther King: Fifty Years after His Assassination – Part 4


Makheru Bradley

Fighting for Justice Made Dr. King an Enemy of the US Government

It was sometime during the evening of April 4, 1968 when I heard the news that Dr. Martin L. King had been assassinated. My first reaction was, “I’m not surprised.” Growing up during the Civil Rights-era, violence against Afrikans in America, and their leaders was common. Of course, I became very angry and I wanted to retaliate in any way I could. Over the next few days as our protests prompted the city of Charlotte to impose a curfew, the deeper question of why kill Dr. King, an apostle of peace, dominated my thoughts.

Based on my level of consciousness at the time, I did not understand how the “Dreamer,” the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had come to be regarded as an enemy of the United States government. Since I was more into Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and the Black Panther Party, I had not paid close attention to Dr. King’s radicalization.

I possessed enough consciousness to oppose the Vietnam War. My friend Robert Ross was killed in Vietnam, as was Russell Minton who lived in our neighborhood. However, I understood neither the scope of Dr. King’s opposition to the war, nor the possibilities of the Poor Peoples Campaign.

The government’s focus on Dr. King as a potential threat started long before his opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign. In fact it started with Dr. King’s grandfather Rev. A.D. Williams, an Atlanta NAACP leader, in 1917, and it continued with Dr. King’s father, Rev. Martin L. King, Sr.

On March 21, 1993, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis) published a story titled “Army feared King, secretly watched him;” subtitled “Spying on Blacks started 75 years ago.” The article stated:

“The intelligence branch of the United States Army spied on the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for three generations. Top secret, often illegal, intrusions into the lives of Black Americans began more than 75 years ago and often focused on Black churches in the South and their ministers.

The spying was born of a conviction by top Army intelligence officers that black Americans were ripe for subversion – first by agents of the German Kaiser, then by Communists, later by the Japanese and eventually by those opposed to the Vietnam War.”

Army Intelligence opened its first file on Martin L. King, Jr. when he was 18-years old in 1947, “with a photograph showing him and other Morehouse College students leaving a meeting of Mrs. Dorothy Lilley’s Intercollegiate Council. She was a suspected Communist, according to the file on King kept by the 111th Military Intelligence Group at Fort McPherson in Atlanta.”

In 1957, “Army spies pegged King as a Communist tool when he spoke at the 25th anniversary of the integrated Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. Army Intelligence had watched the school for years.”

After Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover said Dr. King was "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." Hoover requested wiretaps on Dr. King’s home and SCLC’s offices in Atlanta and New York. Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved those wiretaps in October 1963 on the basis of Dr. King’s alleged association with communists.

David Garrow notes in “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.” that the “intelligence” gathered by the FBI was shared with the US secretaries of state and defense, the CIA, each branch of the military service, and with state and local law enforcement agencies. A lot of this so-called “intelligence” was nothing more than propaganda driven by the intense white supremacist hatred J. Edgar Hoover had for Dr. King. Stories were also planted in the corporate media. There is no doubt that this propaganda was successful in poisoning the political environment where Dr. King was operating.

In 1976 the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee) reported:

From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader. In the words of the man in charge of the FBI’s “war” against Dr. King:

“No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.”

The FBI collected information about Dr. King’s plans and activities through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence-gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal. Wiretaps, which were initially approved by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, were maintained on Dr. King’s home telephone from October 1963 until mid-1965; the SCLC headquarter’s telephones were covered by wiretaps for an even longer period. Phones in the homes and offices of some of Dr. King’s close advisers were also wiretapped. The FBI has acknowledged 16 occasions on which microphones were hidden in Dr. King’s hotel and motel rooms in an “attempt” to obtain information about the “private activities of King and his advisers” for use to “completely discredit” them.

Congressional leaders were warned “off the record” about alleged dangers posed by Reverend King. The FBI responded to Dr. King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by attempting to undermine his reception by foreign heads of state and American ambassadors in the countries that be planned to visit. When Dr. King returned to the United States, steps were taken to reduce support for a huge banquet and a special “day” that were being planned in his honor.

The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness. As early as 1962, Director Hoover penned on an FBI memorandum, “King is no good.” At the August 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King told the country of his dream, the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division described this “demagogic speech” as yet more evidence that Dr. King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” The depth of Director Hoover’s bitterness toward Dr. King, a bitterness which he had effectively communicated to his subordinates in the FBI, was apparent from the FBI’s attempts to sully Dr. King’s reputation long after his death.

Dr. King made his first major speech against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967. He said: “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” Life magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” a line that could have been written by J. Edgar Hoover.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) on December 4, 1967. Dr. King said of their plans to bring poor people to Washington, D.C.: "We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, “We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way...and we've come to stay until you do something about it.'" The FBI responded by organizing Operation POCAM to monitor and disrupt the campaign. They spread rumors that the PPC was bankrupt, that it would not be safe, and that participants would lose welfare benefits upon returning home.”

On March 4, 1968 the FBI released its COINTELPRO “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” memo, which stated among other goals:

“Prevent the Rise of a Messiah who could unify, and electrify, the militant Black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a "messiah;" he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed obedience to white, liberal doctrines (nonviolence) and embrace Black Nationalism. Carmichael has the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way.

A goal of our investigative activity should be to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.”

On April 4, 1968 Dr. King was neutralized. His powerful enemies wanted Dr. King neutralized before he brought the PPC to Washington. Not only did Dr. King plan to shut down the federal government. He also planned to bring in the Peace Movement to shut down the Pentagon. This was serious revolutionary activity. It could have set the United States on a course towards freedom and justice for all. The white power structure would not allow that to happen.

One of Martin Luther King’s favorite quotes comes from the poet James Russell Lowell. It says: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—. Yet that scaffold sways the future.” Dr. King was taken out of his development, but his words and deeds will sway the future. Makheru Bradley is the author of the blog “Makheru Speaks”Makheru Speaks