This article is published in AlterNet.
The FBI surveilled Martin Luther King Jr. through COINTELPRO, pressured him to commit suicide, and tried to crush him. Now it posts tweets celebrating “his incredible career fighting for civil rights.”
“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you,” declared socialist leader and union organizer Nicholas Klein in 1914 (in a quote often misattributed to Gandhi). Klein added, “In this story you have a history of this entire movement.”
Nearly 50 years after his murder, Martin Luther King Jr. is lionized by the very forces that ridiculed, attacked, and wanted to burn him. The same government institutions that threatened King’s life and called him the “most notorious liar in the country” and a “filthy, abnormal animal” are today applauding him.
The radical legacy of the civil rights icon — who not only valiantly fought Jim Crow, but also harshly condemned capitalism and spoke out bravely against the US war in Vietnam, alienating the vast majority of the liberal establishment — has been so thoroughly whitewashed that the very same government institutions that wished death on King are now heaping praise on his memory.
On Martin Luther King Day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation posted a tweet saying it “honors the Rev. Martin L. King Jr. and his incredible career fighting for civil rights.”
What the FBI did not mention in its tweet is that it played an active role in trying to crush King, whom it disparaged as “a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that,” when he was alive.
King, who was arrested 30 times in his life, was a primary target of COINTELPRO — the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, in which it spied on, threatened, and even assassinated revolutionary leaders in the Black liberation, socialist, and anti-imperialist movements.
The FBI relentlessly harassed and threatened King. It listened to his phone calls. It repeatedly called his house, taunting him. It spied on his romantic affairs. The FBI even blackmailed King, pressuring him to commit suicide.
After he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963, the FBI dubbed King the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” FBI department heads held a meeting to discuss “a complete analysis of the avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.”
In the name of fighting communism, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to be surveilled. The FBI placed dozens of microphones in places King frequented and wiretapped his phones, with the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In order to gauge “the communist influences upon him,” the FBI tracked “all instances of King’s travels and activities.”
When King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964, the FBI was furious. In an infamous November press conference, FBI Director Hoover slammed King as “the most notorious liar in the country.” Off the record, Hoover also called the civil rights icon “one of the lowest characters in the country.”
A few days after the press conference, the FBI sent King a chilling anonymous letter, blackmailing him and telling him to kill himself. The FBI called King an “evil, abnormal beast” and a “complete fraud and a great liability to” black Americans. “Your end is approaching,” the FBI wrote, describing him as “not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile.”
Through its surveillance, the FBI gathered evidence of King’s sexual dalliances, and threatened to expose them to the world. “You are done… I repeat you are done… You are finished… King you are done… You are done,” the letter reiterated.
“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what that is,” the FBI concluded, strongly hinting at suicide. “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.”
King persevered for three more years, until, in April 1968, his life was taken from him. In 1999, a jury decided in a civil suit in Tennessee that the US government was complicit in the killing of King.
A March 1968 FBI memo, from the month before King’s death, discussed ways to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” The memo, which is redacted, hinted that a leader like King “could be a real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism.”
“Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them,” the memo added. The next year, the FBI was involved in the murder of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and another candidate for the “black messiah” the agency warned about.
Five decades later, however, despite their well-documented history of trying to destroy King, the FBI and other government institutions now use him to try to improve their image.
The real King was an uncompromising political radical. He recognized that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He implored people to “question the capitalistic economy” and insisted, “We can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
King linked white supremacy to imperialism, Jim Crow in the US to apartheid in South Africa. When he came out against the bloody war in Vietnam, which would leave millions dead, conservatives and liberals alike castigated him. The editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington Post cast their scorn on King; on one day, 168 newspapers berated him.
Yet King persisted. He declared that “the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together, and you really can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the others.” He also said activists must must “make it clear that America is a hypocritical nation,” and maintained, “The whole structure of American life must be changed.”
The intentional erasure and rewriting of King’s radical legacy is perhaps the most egregious, and insidious, example of historical whitewashing, but it is by no means the only one.
Rosa Parks was, too, a political radical who made grave sacrifices. She did not just refuse to get out of her chair one day on a bus; she lived a life full of struggle. Parks supported the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary communist organization. She demanded reparations and economic justice, and spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign. Parks called for freedom of political prisoners and condemned political brutality. She even campaigned against the Vietnam War and was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Parks in fact inspired another Black liberation icon whose radical legacy has similarly been erased. Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary committed to armed resistance against his white supremacist colonial regime. The anti-apartheid leader was closely involved with the South African Communist Party, and may have been a member. The US, which supported the apartheid regime, smeared Mandela as a terrorist. The CIA helped South Africa imprison Mandela for 27 years, and Mandela remained on the US government’s “terrorist” list until 2008. Today, however, Mandela is, like Martin Luther King Jr., commended by the very same government that oppressed him.
This development is not new. Even communist leader Vladimir Lenin spoke of the phenomenon, on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution 100 years ago. In his 1917 opus “The State and Revolution,” Lenin wrote, “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”