We shall overcome—King and the birth of the nonviolent revolutionary movement in the US

Ever since it has been observed as a federal holiday in 1986, we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday every year on the third Monday of January. . Born January 15, 1929, he would now be 85 years old if not cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. Yet in his 37 short, incredibly productive years, he gave birth to a movement both nonviolent and revolutionary that changed America irrevocably. To this day his singular voice cries out to our conscience for more: justice, equality, peace, prosperity for all. Will that we listen to overcome the obstacles we face.

For King, greatness was available to all through service to others, and avoiding what he termed the “Drum Major Instinct.” In a sermon of the same name, he quotes Jesus speaking in the tenth chapter of Saint Mark, the thirty-fifth verse “ . . . but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”

To be the greatness as servant of all, obviously was not a call to drum major our way to world hegemony. In fact, if King were here to witness Iraq, Afghanistan, et al, his comments from the same sermon given in 1968 would eerily apply:

“But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. ‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme.’ ‘Our nation must rule the world.’ And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

“God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”

Conscience and the Montgomery bus boycott

The admonishments of that voice of conscience unfortunately won King a number of enemies in high as well as low places, as well as millions of followers across the U.S. and the world. But King never hesitated to step up to the moral high ground. In 1955, as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he led the Bus Boycott that started when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man, Jim Crow be damned. The boycott went on for 381 days, King’s house was bombed, and he was arrested. Yet the important result was the Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation on intrastate buses. King kept his eyes on the prize.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

King was central in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, organizing marches, leading them for blacks’ right to vote, for desegregation, labor rights and basic civil rights, most enacted into United States law with the passage of JFK’s original Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, when criticized by eight fellow clergymen in 1963 for “stirring up trouble,” he admonished them at length in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” surprised that they could sit so tight and smug through it all.

King led the SCLS till his death, though in life his nonviolent principles were criticized by younger, more radical blacks, like James Foreman, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), later Stokely Carmichael, H. Rapp Brown, as well as Malcolm X. Yet, King adhered to his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience garnered from Mahatma Gandhi. He was loath to throw his followers into a head-on violent confrontation with the over-armed, larger forces of the southern and/or national establishments. Body counts counted to him, including using words and actions to hold the government to its written laws.

King’s brand of passive resistance, taking its lumps from racists any number of times, used same to dramatize in the media the violent struggle for black equality and voting rights. The televised footage, the stories of cruel treatment and indignities inflicted on southern blacks, of segregationist violence on marchers and workers generated a huge wave of public opinion that washed over American politics and left Civil Rights as the issue of the early 60’s. Till this day King’s philosophy is a singularly effective technique for protest.

What’s more, King had a great instinct for picking the places and protests with the most dramatic power: Albany, in 1961 and ‘62, Birmingham protests in the summer of ‘63, St. Augustine, Florida in 1964, joining forces in Selma, Alabama, in December, 1964, with SNCC in a months’ long voter registration program. In the same year, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his nonviolent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States. He turned over his $55,000 prize to the movement, postponing his own and his family’s financial security, putting his money where his soul was.

Affirmative Action

King’s call for Affirmative Action was colorblind, despite the fact that the lion’s share of America’s poor was black . . .

Whenever this issue [compensatory treatment] is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up . . .

A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis . . .

For two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro: it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races . . .

The March on Washington

After two failed attempts to get the March going, King represented SCLC, one of the “Big Six civil rights groups who helped organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The other leaders were Roy Wilkins, NAACP; Whitney Young, Jr., Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Here too King stepped into controversy. He was one of the figures who went along with the JFK’s wishes to change the march’s focus. Kennedy did not favor the march at first, fearing it would work against the passage of civil rights legislation. But King and the other organizers stuck to their plan to go on with it, albeit with some change in focus.

The original idea was to dramatize desperate conditions of blacks in the South, with the notion of placing grievances square in the lap of power in Washington. They would rake the federal government over the coals for failing to safeguard civil rights and civil rights workers and blacks in the south. Nevertheless the group gave into presidential pressure and the event took place on a less dissident note, and perhaps with even more success.

In the short run, this caused some civil rights activists, notably Malcolm X, to claim that a prettified picture of racial harmony was being presented. He called it “The Farce on Washington,” warning that members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced temporary suspension.

But the March plodded on and made its demands: ending racial segregation in public school; asking for a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed by a congressional committee.

The March in fact turned out to be a huge success. Over a quarter of a million people of diverse backgrounds attended. They cascaded from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflection pool. It was the largest gathering of protestors in Washington’s history. At the center of it was Martin Luther King, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, rivaling Lincoln’s Gettysburg address for oratory brilliance and sheer poetry . . .

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Chicago, a hell of a town for the poor

Flushed with southern successes, King and others in the movement tried in 1966 to spread the word north to Chicago. King and Abernathy actually moved into the windy city’s slums, both to learn and show their support for the poor. Middle class folk, educated, of decent means, they needed some way to connect. Yet Abernathy couldn’t deal with the slums and quietly moved out after a while. King stayed, only to write how Coretta and his kids took an emotional beating from the bad conditions, like not being to simply play outside.

Abernathy wrote they had a tougher reception in Chicago than down south. Flying bottles and screaming crowds met them at marches. The two leaders feared starting a riot. King always felt responsible for the safety of his troops, avoiding violent events, a rather humane quality as a social activist of the ‘60s or any decade. If he felt violence would put down a peaceful march, he’d call it off for everyone’s safety. Yet he still faced the angel many times, marching out front to face threats. In Chicago, the violence was something else. But then in liberal New York, he was stabbed in the chest at a book signing by a demented woman. The wound narrowly missed his aorta and killing him.

Worse than Chi’s violence to King were the two-faced city leaders. Whatever agreements Abernathy and King secured were killed afterwards by the bureaucratic pols in Mayor Richard Daley’s corrupt machine. Small successes like operation Breadbasket did not turn into anything like the bus boycott desegregation in the south. They did spark ideas like Affirmative Action and labor organization as actionable techniques for people to use.

When King left Chicago, he left Jesse Jackson, still a young man, in charge. Despite Jackson’s great heart and speaking skills, this proved troublesome. Jackson hadn’t learned to run an organization. A bag of unorganized receipts came after a request for financial records from King. And so Chicago was the place where the movement first lost its steam and began to fade like a slow freight in the smoky dusk from the bright dream of a new day King had planned for it.

More challenges en route

From 1965 to April 4, 1967, a year before his death, King expressed deep doubts (mentioned earlier) about the US role in Vietnam. His language pulled no punches, stating the US was in Nam “to occupy it as an American Colony,” calling the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also argued that our country needed a broad scope of moral changes.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.”

King was long hated by many white southern segregationists, but this speech turned the more mainstream and “liberal” media against him. TIME called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi and the Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

King’s speech was a reflection of his evolving political advocacy in his later years. He began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of our nation. He more frequently expressed his war opposition and his desire to see resources reallocated to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism:

You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. . . . Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong . . . with capitalism. . . . There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. (Frogmore, S.C. November 14, 1966. Speech made in front of his staff.)

King also stated in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be, until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor”, appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI

From 1961 on, J. Edgar had started one of his infamous files on King. In 1968, before King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI released an information onslaught against King that included a letter to him from an Assistant Director of the Bureau who literally called for King’s suicide.

To make a long painful story mercifully short, in October of 1963, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap the telephones of King. RFK believed one of King’s closest advisers from the mid-fifties was a top-level member of the American Communist Party. He also felt that out of loyalty King had misled the Administration about his continuing close ties with the man, Stanley Levison, who in fact had been involved with the Communist Party as a financial contributor and important operative since the late 40’s.

Yet in March 1963, when the FBI had incontrovertible evidence from informants that Levison had severed all ties with the Communist Party of the United States, the Bureau purposely did not mention this fact to Robert or John Kennedy. Thus the bugging was allowed to continue only to reveal tangentially that King carried on rather kinky extramarital affairs up until the eve of his death. Another Assistant Director of the FBI characterized them as “orgiastic and adulterous escapades, some of which indicated King could be bestial in his sexual abuse of women.” Yet, since no charges or complaints were ever made by the women involved in these revelries, one assumes participation was consensual.

What was more shocking than King’s indiscretions was the FBI’s sending the tapes to King’s office, where his wife discovered them. Then the FBI publicly demonized King as a Communist as well as a man of low moral character. But let us consider the source, the FBI fountainhead . . .

J. Edgar Hoover had a 44-year, gay relationship with fellow FBI-man, Clyde Tolson. Five years younger than Hoover, a tall, handsome lawyer from Hoover’s alma mater, George Washington University, Tolson experienced a meteoric rise from April 1928, when he joined the bureau, to soon becoming its number two man. Hoover, who was never have known, going back to high school, to date a woman, or be seen with one in public, nevertheless lived with his mother till she died and with a garden full of classical statues of nude men. He did drive to work and back with Tolson daily, ate lunch with him almost every day, traveled with him on all official business, vacationed with him, and went to all social functions with Clyde. In fact they are buried together, “continuing their cohabitation after death,” as one writer put it.

The G-men were so close, so affectionate and dear to each other one might assume they were the paradigm of gay marriage. The Mafia claimed to have compromising photos of them. Everyday people claimed they saw the two holding hands. Hoover’s scrapbooks (found A.D.) were almost all of Tolson. The wife of a psychiatrist Hoover saw claims her husband told her the G-boss confessed to being gay. We won’t even touch on the talk of J. Edgar’s cross-dressing, or his ruthless bashing of anyone who intimated he was gay. The fact that he, the king of blackmail, was a queen for life is only now penetrating America’s skull. On the news of his death, no less than Richard Nixon, Mr. Propriety, commented, “Christ, that old cocksucker!” For now let that be the last stone thrown at Hoover’s dark but glass house.

The assassination

On April 3, 1968, King, sensing his own end, told a euphoric crowd:

It really doesn’t matter what happens now. . . . some began to . . . talk about the threats that were out—what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. . . . 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’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. 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. And 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.

King was assassinated the next evening, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 PM, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, while getting ready to lead a local march in support of the mostly black Memphis sanitation workers’ union then on strike. Friends inside the motel room heard the shot fired and ran to the balcony to find King shot in the throat (the location of JFK’s first hit). King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s hospital at 7:05 PM. The assassination led to a wave of riots in 60 plus cities coast to coast. Four days later, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning for King. 300,000 mourners attended his funeral that same day.

Two months after King’s death, escaped convict and purported killer James Earl Ray was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport, trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. Ray was extradited post haste to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder, confessing on his lawyer’s strong advice to the assassination on March 10, 1969. He recanted this confession only three days later. Eventually, Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term, your old solo gunman locked away for eternity.

Ray, supposedly a white supremacist and segregationist, allegedly killed King because of the latter’s extensive civil rights work. On the misleading advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray took a guilty plea to avoid a trial conviction and the improbable possibility of receiving the death penalty. Improbable due to the US Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia that invalidated all state death penalty laws then in force.

Ray fired Foreman as his attorney, claiming that a man he met in Montreal, Canada with the alias “Raoul” was involved, as was his brother Johnny, but not himself. He further asserted that although he didn’t “personally shoot Dr. King,” he may have been “partially responsible without knowing it,” hinting at a conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial that never came.

The smoke of conspiracy

According to international human rights attorney William F. Pepper in his book An Act of State-The Execution of Martin Luther King, on that April 4th evening, two top-level army snipers were posed to knock King out when ordered. Two military officers were placed on the roof of a fire station across the way from the Lorraine Motel, to take pictures. Two black firemen were ordered not to come to work that day and a black Memphis Police Department detective on surveillance duty in the fire station was physically removed from his post and taken home.

Dr King’s room at the motel was changed from a secluded ground-floor room to number 306 on the balcony. Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill which backed into the motel from the other side of the street, had received $100,000 in cash for his participation in the assassination. He was to go out into the brush area behind the grill with the shooter then take the gun from the shooter immediately after the deadly shot was fired. When it was over, King was down, the clean-up began, six FBI men running from the fire house to be first on the scene to provide first aid.

Framing Ray as patsy

Many, including Pepper, believed Ray had been used as a patsy similar to Lee Harvey Oswald. Ray was a small-time thief and burglar, but had no record of violent crimes with a weapon. The weapon that Ray purportedly used on King was a Remington Gamemaster Model 760 .30-’06 caliber rifle. It had only two of Ray’s fingerprints on it. According to fellow prison inmates, Ray had never expressed political or racial opinions, which casts doubt on Ray’s motive for the murder. The rooming-house bathroom from where Ray supposedly fired the fatal shots didn’t have any of his fingerprints in it. Ray was also thought to be an average marksman, but many claimed he hadn’t fired a rifle since his discharge from the U.S. Army in the late 1940s.

Moreover, two separate ballistic tests on the Remington Gamemaster neither proved Ray had been the killer nor that it had been the murder weapon. Witnesses surrounding King at the time of his death claim the shot came from behind the thick shrubbery near the rooming house, not from the rooming house. The shrubbery was suddenly cut away in the days following the King’s murder. Also, Ray’s petty criminal history revealed he was a flop as a petty thief, easily caught every time he committed a crime. This doesn’t jibe with the Ray following the assassination, who easily managed to get several different pieces of legitimate i.d., and use names and data of men who looked like and were about the same age and build as him.

Also, Ray spent large chunks of cash traveling overseas without being stopped at any border crossing, even though he was a known fugitive. According to Ray, this had been accomplished with the aid of the still unidentified “Raoul.” Investigative reporter Louis Lomax had also discovered that the Missouri Department of Corrections, shortly after Ray’s April 1967 prison break, had sent the wrong set of fingerprints to the FBI and didn’t notice or correct this mistake.

According to a former Pemiscot County, Missouri deputy sheriff, Jim Green, who claimed he was part of an FBI-led conspiracy to kill Dr. King, Ray had been targeted as the patsy for the assassination right before his April 1967 prison escape. He’d been tracked by the Bureau during his year as a fugitive. After several trips to and from Canada and Mexico during this time, Ray had gone to Memphis after agreeing to participate. Green thought he was controlled by his mysterious benefactor “Raoul” who had reportedly weeks before, while in Birmingham, Alabama, ordered Ray to purchase the Remington Gamemaster rifle for a supposed major bank robbery while King was in town. Since city police resources would be occupied maintaining security for King, Ray was told the intended bank heist would be a piece of cake.

Green like Ray said that FBI assistant director Cartha DeLoach led the assassination plot. Green said Ray was ordered to stay in the rooming house. Then, as a diversion for the would-be bank heist, Ray was to hold up a small diner near the rooming house at approximately 6:00 p.m. on April 4th while King was shot a minute later by a sniper hidden in the shrubbery near the rooming house. According to Green, two men, one of them allegedly a Memphis police detective, were waiting to ambush and kill Ray while he was on his way to the planned diner holdup and then plant the Remington rifle in the trunk of Ray’s pale yellow 1966 Mustang, thereby framing a dead man. But, moments before the assassination, Ray suspected a setup, and quickly left town in his Mustang, heading for Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta police found Ray’s abandoned car six days later.

Ray and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee on June 10, 1977, shortly after Ray testified that he did not shoot King to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The escapees were recaptured on June 13 and returned to prison. More years were then added to Ray’s sentence for attempting to escape from the penitentiary. He spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to withdraw his guilty plea and receive the trial he never arrived.

Pepper pops the perps

In 1988, William Pepper agreed to represent Ray in an appeal of his sentence. He built a brilliant case against the perps. Though the defense didn’t work for Ray, the evidence was used in 1999 against Jowers and co-conspirators. They were brought to trial in a wrongful death civil action suit on behalf of the King family. Some seventy witnesses laid out the details of a conspiracy, a plot to murder King that included J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Richard Helms an the CIA, the military, the local Memphis police, and organized crime figures from New Orleans and Memphis.

The evidence must have been impressive. It took the jury an hour to find for the King family. The revelations were said to be shocking, like all those of assassinations during those years. Yet no major media would touch the story. It was quietly buried. In short, the US government or some lone potato had shut down one of the most effective movements for change by simply stopping its leader dead in his tracks. And King, he who would serve the most, would serve no more. And those who would serve no one but themselves would rule. What would Jesus think?

We’ll never know, but in 2000, John Ashcroft’s Justice Department did not find evidence to support the Jowers/FBI conspiracy as presented by William Pepper. The investigation report recommended no further investigation unless some new reliable facts were presented. Also, both King biographer David Garrow and King-assassination author Gerald Posner disagree with Pepper’s claims that the government killed King. What do you think?

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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