My family showed me Martin Luther King, Jr. as if he were reflected in a racist fun-house mirror, but the traditional view of MLK taught at my public high school and reinforced in mainstream media also misrepresents King’s multifaceted contribution. The circumscribed tale of MLK’s civil rights journey from the bus boycott to the civil rights bills implies that racism was essentially eradicated and downplays his increasing focus on class and poverty as well as his criticism of the Vietnam war. This congratulatory narrative remains more palatable to those uninterested in confronting more subtle contemporary racism, and reassures elites interested in maintaining the status quo regarding the economy and foreign policy, while depriving those working for social justice of a historically meaningful portrait.
The bowdlerized picture of King that I absorbed as a child must have been similarly comforting to my family. I will never forget my mother recounting her outrage about MLK’s assassination, outrage that riots erupted because “they riot about everything,” giving me the impression that black riots were a sort of mass temper tantrum. History class left the impression that racism essentially ended with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, so the riots remained inexplicable. I later came to understand the substantive reasons for the collective outbursts of rage, and it was an epiphany when I discovered that race riots historically involved white vigilantes marauding in black neighborhoods. Whites often rioted and lynched during Jim Crow, notably in the 1908 Springfield riot which was so shocking it spurred some whites to support the formation of the NAACP. Most shockingly during the Red Summer of 1919 more than a few returning black soldiers, some still in their uniforms, were lynched.
My mother raised me in Florida and she would have had to look no further than the black town of Rosewood, where white Floridians rioted in 1923 destroying almost the entire town and killing countless residents. More recently, when Mom was a teenager, a small-scale riot erupted in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after King was arrested for demanding service at a segregated restaurant, and segregationists subsequently attacked his supporters. So it was this legacy of terrorism and vigilantism, not to mention slavery, in conjunction with myriad ongoing injustices that constituted the “everything” my mother dismissed.
My stepfather once flabbergasted me by claiming “Martin Luther King was a communist,” but I was dumbstruck when I learned he was merely echoing J. Edgar Hoover’s assertion in November 1964 that King’s SCLC was “spearheaded by Communists.” As an adult I discovered that Communists during the inter-war period were indeed in the vanguard of the struggle for racial justice, most famously by championing the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Many progressives had been involved with the Communist Party, notably A. Philip Randolph, who later played a key role in the Montgomery bus boycott, and Bayard Rustin, who demonstrated his genius organizing the March on Washington. But after the revelations of Stalin’s mass-killings American progressives distanced themselves from the Party, and despite the segregationist mantra that civil rights advocates were at best Communist sympathizers, even the FBI eventually concluded that the civil rights movement was not directed by Moscow. Yet Hoover’s assessment could not have improved after King first publicly criticized the Vietnam War in August 1965 and further denounced it in February 1967. Then on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, King delivered his famous “Beyond Vietnam” address, calling the U. S. government ”the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” thus cementing his reputation with my stepfather.
Arguably the least acknowledged aspect of King’s life involves the national security apparatus targeting him for surveillance, infiltration, disinformation and disruption. On October 10, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the Justice Department to wiretap MLK’s home phone, SCLC phones, and the phones of close friends and advisers. The FBI also used hidden microphones in King’s motel rooms to gather evidence of adultery and subsequently tried to blackmail him. By spreading disinformation to churches, universities, media, and government officials, the FBI sought to discredit King and intimidate his funders. The government began running large-scale domestic counter-intelligence programs in 1957, and in August 1967 the FBI initiated COINTELPRO Black Nationalist-Hate groups. This program sought to “neutralize” these groups and included “intensified attention” to King’s SCLC. As early as 1963 the FBI called King “the most dangerous... Negro leader” and initiated counter-intelligence programs against King when he was still narrowly focused on fighting segregation and disenfranchisement, thus raising questions about how civil rights endangered national security.
My family’s impressions aside, high school teachers, pundits and scholars embraced Martin Luther King’s civil rights victories in the South. This narrative is easily compartmentalized into celebratory curricula and encapsulated in feel-good news spots. Although often delaying and seeking to restrain King, the government ultimately gave its imprimatur to MLK’s civil rights work especially when juxtaposed to the militant alternative. With the government consistently sanctioning King’s approach relative to the militants, in conjunction with media outside the South reporting and editorializing favorably, public opinion too came to support this perspective. Historians naturally take account of this mainstream view and so King is remembered only as the champion of civil rights. But when confronted by recalcitrant problems in the North and the inertia of the Vietnam war, King largely failed or managed only marginal victories, and these incomplete results to more complex problems do not lend themselves to heroic portrayal in textbooks and retrospectives. The circumscribed version of MLK sanitizes the historical record of valuable lessons for those working for economic justice and a humane foreign policy, and is arguably as distorted as the Martin Luther King seen through my family’s racist prism.
Charles Heffernan is a Berkeley resident.