All King knew was struggle – from his inception into the civil rights movement, to the day he was taken from us far too early. It’s safe to say life was never easy for King. As the scope of his public dissent continued to broaden in his later years, so did the adversity he would face from friends, family, and powerful institutions. Efforts to build upon the foundation off his life’s work after his passing proved to be substantial posthumous challenges as well, fit for, well, this King. It took nearly two decades after King’s assassination to formally enshrine his rightful spot among legends actually worth anointing with a national holiday.
King’s final years
His greatest enemy: the “greatest purveyor of violence”
As I briefly mentioned in part 1, it’s hard to fathom the degree to which powerful, then-secret factions of King’s government held deep fear and hatred for him. The most striking manifestation of this fear that we know of is one of the most disgraceful uses of public resources in U.S. history known as COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram). COINTELPRO was a morally reprehensible, highly-illegal, covert FBI operation, at times in collaboration with the CIA, NSA, and DoD, which undertook every imaginable means to disrupt progress they did not wish to see, including the outright assassination of U.S. citizens. The program fomented (not prevented) domestic terrorism. What we now know about this indelible stain on American history is surreal.
Groups that were targeted by COINTELPRO included the Communist Party, peace activists, feminists, American Indians, and civil rights leaders. King was instrumental in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equity: all subjects of COINTELPRO’s terrorism. Government sanctioned violence against religious, non-violent, and equality-seeking citizen organizations are as diametrically opposed to codified American ideals and values as was the Confederacy. Yet, This is America.
The litany of disgraceful abuses of power that we know of levied by COINTELPRO operatives is far too long and depressing to detail, yet if you’ve never heard of it, I encourage you to educate yourself further; it’s too important not to. We may have never learned of the program if not for the highly courageous activist group called the Citizens’ Commissions to Investigate the FBI who exposed the program to the American public three years after King’s death by breaking into an FBI office and sharing the documents with the media a la the Pentagon Papers. This is also America (thankfully).
The scope of COINTELPRO’s reach was disturbingly broad, targeting individuals and groups whose public dissent challenged the power dynamics of the poisonous Washingtonian white supremacy upon which the U.S. was founded and whose roots are still nourished today. Sadly, this is no exaggeration; the codename for the subcommittee that focused on King was COINTELPRO-BLACK HATE. A quotation from the head of the FBI, director J Edgar Hoover, captures their perspective well:
In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. … We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.
In the final years of King’s life, FBI operatives had him under constant surveillance, bugging his communication throughout his travels in pursuit of anything they could use to delegitimize his integrity. A mere two days after receiving notification that he earned the highest honor in the world given to any human, The Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover and company shamefully sent King a letter urging him to commit suicide.
Though the FBI was unsuccessful at convincing King to take his own life, someone, very likely James Earl Ray, did the job a few years later on April 4th, 1968 at the hotel where King was advocating for economics and social justice for black striking sanitation workers at a rally in Memphis.
Like most high-profile assassinations, there remains some controversy about who was behind the murder to this day. Though there is no hard evidence I’m aware of to confirm the suspicion, it seems King’s own family believes Ray did not act alone. Shortly after his admission of guilt, Ray reversed course, stated he was framed and would maintain his innocence until the day he died some thirty years later. In 1993, Loyd Jowers, a Memphis bar owner, presented an alternative narrative in which he was abetted by Donald Wilson, an FBI agent, in the killing of King. The case was tried, and the jury arrived at a verdict that found government agencies conspired with Jowers to kill King. King’s family was awarded $100 in a civil settlement some 31 years after his death in 1999 based on this ruling.
Despite this verdict, I’ve not read terribly credible reporting that supports assassins who in place of or in conspiracy with Ray. All known suspects: Ray, Wilson, and Jowers, have shifted their stories over time. The official report from the Justice Department lends no credence to these alternative narratives and in fact, refutes the stories of Jowers’ and Wilson’s involvement.
However, given their intense scrutiny over King’s every move and their strong desire to neutralize his influence, it seems within the realm of possibility that the U.S. government played some role in King’s assassination. Though by-definition governmental involvement constitutes a conspiracy theory, there’s a precedent for it; COINTELPRO worked with the Chicago PD to murder Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panthers.
Yet, assuming the more likely scenario that the U.S. government didn’t work directly with Ray, and Ray was the gunman, it’s hard to imagine COINTELPRO’s persistent and broad smear campaign against King did not further radicalize an already disturbed Ray. Like so many things, we may never know, but the notion that it’s within the realm of possibility that the U.S. government contributed to the assassination of one of the greatest American heroes is sickening and something to always remember about how unchecked power can function irrespective of the ideals it purports to uphold.
Memphis sanitation workers
As I mentioned in part 1, King’s legacy on economic justice is woefully underrepresented. He was murdered while trying to bring attention to the unjust conditions of inequality for sanitation workers of color in Memphis, TN. The black workers endured unequal pay and worse working conditions. Their deep struggle was punctuated by a garbage compactor malfunction that killed two workers who were forced to seek refuge from the rain inside the bay of the garbage compactor, unlike white workers.
Preparedness to die
An excerpt from King’s final speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop”:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the Mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the Mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I get goosebumps every single time I listen to or read that stanza. I’ve always been so moved by those who are prepared to die for a cause. It’s tremendously admirable to have such conviction yet simultaneously quite hard to relate to being so at peace with an expected truncated life. Ultimately, I wish we had King longer, so in some ways, I wish he wasn’t so at peace with what he seemed to see as inevitable.
After King’s assassination
King’s greatest champion: John Conyers
Four days after King’s assassination, John Conyers, an African American Congressman from Michigan, introduced a bill to create a national holiday on King’s birthday, January 15th. Unsurprisingly, the conservative block of Congress represented their outdated ideology and not their constituents, and shot it down. A couple of years later, Conyers was able to convince the New York governor and NYC mayor to commemorate King officially in 1970. In 1981, in a beautiful display of the role of artists in social movements, the inimitable Stevie Wonder wrote a song honoring King’s birthday which was thought to have substantial influence in the process of making the holiday a reality. In 1983 a bill passed the house despite the filibustering of Jesse Helms, one of the greatest stains on my home state North Carolina’s history, and who, according to the Washington Post, was “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” Incidentally, I’m not sure “last” is valid any longer. Regardless, the bill overwhelmingly passed the house and senate and went into law. In 1986, Coretta Scott King hosted the first MLK Day.
Despite defending Helm’s blocking attempts and slandering of King calling him a communist in addition to supporting others who sought means to prevent King’s full recognition, like any reasonably aware politician, Reagan eventually conceded to what the vast majority of his administration and certainly his constituents demanded and signed into existence the national holiday commemorating King. At the dedication in Washington, Raegan said:
He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.
It’s hard to scribe more flattering words that personify the best of American ideals. These are words meant for a hero, a King, the ultimate patriot – not a heretic. However, while he was alive and for many years after his death, influential members of the U.S. government were too rooted in the past to accept King’s message of love, compassion, equality, and justice. King, justly and very legitimately threatened their entrenched power and “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
King had an undeniable connection to the everyday person and was able to help coalesce the masses into a powerful force able to see its value; in stark contrast to what hundreds of years of public policy and terror from the highest authority in the land communicated. His experience was replete with enormous challenges, even posthumously, but as King said, we must keep moving forward. Crawl, we must. Without struggle, there is no progress.
Stay tuned for the next article about King’s relevance in the present.