Facts, information and articles about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a prominent figure in Black History
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Facts
January 15, 1929, Atlanta, Georgia
April 4, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee
Coretta Scott King
Leader of African American Civil Rights Leader
Nobel Peace Prize (1964)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977)
Congressional Gold Medal (2004)
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Dr. Martin Luther King (National Archives)
Early Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born Michael Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. His father, in a 1957 interview, said that both he and his son were supposed to be named for the leader of the Protestant Reformation but misunderstandings led to Michael being the name on birth records. The boy became the third member of his family to serve as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. His training and experience as a minister undoubtedly contributed to his renowned oratorical style and cadence.
He also followed the educational path taken by his father and grandfather: he got his education in Georgia’s segregated public schools (from which he graduated at age 15), and he received a B.A. degree from Atlanta’s Morehouse College (a traditionally black college. He then went on to study theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, an integrated school where he was elected president of his senior class although it was comprised primarily of white students. In 1955, he received an advanced degree from Boston College in Massachusetts; he had completed the residence for his doctorate two years earlier. (In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee determined he had plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation; plagiarism was also discovered in his word at Crozer. However, the committee did not recommend his degree be revoked. Evidence of plagiarism had been discovered by Boston University archivists in the 1980s.)
While in Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, who would be his lifetime partner in both marriage and his campaign for civil rights. In 1954, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where King had been hired as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
He was already active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America’s leading African-American organization. At the time of his move to Montgomery he was a member of its executive committee, and in December 1955 he led a 382-day boycott of Montgomery’s segregated public bus system. Negroes, the term then used for the African race, were relegated to the back of the bus and had to give up their seats if a white person wanted them. Since many blacks lived in poverty or near-poverty, few could afford automobiles, and public busses were essential to them for traveling to and from work and elsewhere. During the boycott, King became a target for segregationists. Personal abuse, arrest, and the bombing of his home made clear the risks he would be taking if he continued to work with the movement for civil rights.
In 1957, that movement spawned a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to focus on achieving civil rights. King was elected president. By dropping reference to Negroes or colored people in its title and instead using the term “Christian Leadership” the organization was declaring its goals were not just those of one race but should be those of all Christian people. King strongly influenced the ideals of the organization.
During the next 11 years, he would speak over 2,500 times at public events, traveling over six million miles. He also wrote articles and five books to spread the message farther. In 1963, he was a leader in the massive civil rights protests at Birmingham, Alabama, that drew the attention of all America—indeed, of the entire world—to the discrimination African Americans faced and their demands for change. Arrested during the protests, he penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which became a manifesto for the civil rights revolution and placed King among America’s renowned essayists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Influence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
His tactics for achieving social change were drawn from those of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (known as Mahatma, “great soul”), who had used nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about change in his native India (as he had done with some success previously to win concessions for Indian immigrants living in South Africa’s apartheid system). Gandhi’s methods included boycotts of British goods and institutions. (Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi was repeatedly arrested and ultimately was assassinated by a fanatic.)
Although King stressed nonviolence, even when confronted by violence, those who opposed change did not observe such niceties. Protestors were beaten, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, tear-gassed, and attacked by police dogs; bombings at black churches and other locations took a number of lives; some, both black and white, who agitated for civil rights such as the right to vote were murdered, but the movement pressed on.
King was the most prominent leader in the drive to register black voters in Atlanta and the march on Washington, D.C., that drew a quarter-million participants. His message had moved beyond African Americans and was drawing supporters from all segments of society, many of them appalled by the violence they saw being conducted against peaceful protestors night after night on television news.
Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech
During the rally in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his most famous speech, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, from the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Portions of that speech are often quoted, including, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The speech called not only for Negro rights, but for the rights of all people and, moreover, for friendship and unity among all Americans, with phrases such as, “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Beyond the repeated phrase, “I have a dream,” perhaps the best-known and most-often quoted portion of the speech comes from its concluding paragraph, which states:
“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!”
It has been alleged that King plagiarized his famous speech from one given by Archibald Carey, a black pastor, in a 1952 speech to the Republican National Convention, just as it was found he had plagiarized others’ works in his collegiate papers. While there are similarities in the endings of the two speeches, those similarities are insufficient to be considered outright plagiarism and are based largely on the fact that both men quoted the opening verse of “America the Beautiful” as a lead-in to their closing remarks.
To read a transcript of the entire “I have a dream” speech, see our I Have A Dream Speech Text page
Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize
His oratory and impassioned drive, not just for equality under the law, but for true understanding and acceptance of all races and creeds by all races and creeds, led Time magazine to select Martin Luther King, Jr., as its Man of the Year for 1963. The following year, the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm, Sweden, awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. At 35, he was the youngest man ever to have received it. The prize included an award of over $54,000, which he said he would donate to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
As the Vietnam War escalated, King spoke out against America’s involvement in the conflict. His anti-war position was an outgrowth of his belief in nonviolence, but to those who opposed King it intensified their belief he was pro-communist and anti-American.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated
In the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where the majority of the city’s black sanitation workers had been striking since February 12 for increased job safety measures, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. The mayor, Henry Loeb, staunchly opposed all these measures. King was solicited to come to Memphis to lead a planned march and work stoppage on March 28.
That protest march turned violent when sign-carrying students at the end of the parade began breaking windows of businesses, which led to looting. One looter was killed and about 60 people were injured. The city of Memphis lodged a formal complaint in the U.S. District Court against King and several other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He and those leaders negotiated with the factions among the workers and their supporters who had initiated the march.
Assured that they would observe the creed of nonviolent civil disobedience, King agreed to return to Memphis for the re-scheduled march on April 5. The district court had issued a restraining order, however. Representatives of the SCLC met with the judge on April 4 and worked out a broad agreement that would permit the protest march to be held on April 8. Details were to be worked out on April 5.
On the evening of April 4, one of the SCLC representatives, Andrew Young (who would later serve as President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations and would be elected mayor of Atlanta), came to King’s room at the Lorraine Motel and informed him of what had been worked out with the judge. They prepared to go out to dinner, along with their colleagues. When King stepped onto the balcony in front of his room, he was shot and killed. He was just 39 years old.
In direct contrast to the nonviolence he had preached, riots broke out following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. In Chicago alone, nearly a dozen people died, 350 were arrested for looting, and 162 buildings were destroyed by arson.
James Earl Ray
The FBI quickly identified James Earl Ray as their primary suspect in the killing; his fingerprints had been found on the rifle and scope believed to have been used in the assassination, as well as on a pair of binoculars. The fatal shot had been fired from the bathroom window of a nearby rooming house.
Ray, a high-school dropout who had escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London, England, on June 8. In March 1969, he pled guilty and received a 99-year prison sentence. He escaped in 1977 but was recaptured after three days.
Almost immediately after his conviction, Ray tried to recant his confession, saying he had rented the room at the boardinghouse and bought the gun, but he had turned the weapon over to a man he called “Raoul.” In 1992, Ray published a book, Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin, giving his version of events, which suggested there had been a conspiracy and a government coverup. The case was not reopened, although a special congressional committee reported in 1978 that there was a “likelihood” Ray had not acted alone.
In March 1997, he met with one of King’s sons, Dexter, and told him, “I had nothing to do with shooting your father.” King’s widow and heirs began expressing their belief that Ray was innocent and the assassination was part of a conspiracy.
Ray never provided sufficient details to support his contention of a conspiracy and coverup, but many besides the Kings doubt he acted alone. Among the conspiracy theories is one that claims FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who intensely disliked and distrusted King and had kept him under surveillance since 1962, was involved in the assassination—but like other theories about who killed Martin Luther King, Jr., this is mere conjecture.
Ray was never released from prison. He died of liver failure on April 22, 1998, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy
By the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the civil rights movement was evolving; in some ways, it seemed to be leaving him behind. New black-power activists did not accept his philosophy of nonviolence as a way to achieve their goals. The FBI was breaking the power of the Ku Klux Klan, which had stood squarely in the way of racial equality. After successfully campaigning for Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland, King was not invited to the victory celebration. The next civil rights challenges, such as fighting poverty, were more abstract compared with the clarity of issues like discrimination in hiring and the use of public amenities. These new concerns would likely have proven more difficult for him to achieve the same levels of success as he had in his previous campaigns for equality and justice. On the last Saturday of his life, he mused about quitting his full-time role in the movement, though he seemed to talk himself out of that, according to one of his fellow activists, Jesse Jackson.
Yet, the lasting legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a vibrant catalyst for social change cannot be denied. Among the prominent legacies of his ability to organize and energize the movement for equality are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His birthday has become a national holiday, when government offices and many private businesses close to honor his memory. A portion of the Lorraine Motel, including two persevered rooms and the balcony on which he was assassinated, are part of the National Civil Rights Museum. King’s birthplace is now part of the National Park System.
His eloquent words live on, inspiring others who see injustices and seek to change them. He had a dream, and though it is still a long way from being fully realized, the America of his racially segregated youth and that of today’s integrated society in which a black man was elected President of the United States are as far apart and different from each other as the planet Mars is from Neptune. It is impossible to imagine such sweeping change would occur as quickly as it did without a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., driving it forward.
Articles Featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From History Net Magazines
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Martin Luther King Jr. The Man, The March, the Dream
By David J. Garrow
Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is the most famous portion of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But King’s speech was less heralded during the balance of his own lifetime than it has become since his death by assassination on April 4, 1968. Exploring how and why the fame of ‘I Have a Dream’ is almost entirely posthumous allows us now, 40 years later, to understand better just how different King’s oration looked from inside the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s than it does to many Americans today.
The idea of a 1963 March on Washington was not originally Martin Luther King’s; instead it was A. Philip Randolph, a longtime trade union activist and the senior statesman among African-American civil rights leaders, who first suggested such an event early that year. Indeed, Randolph had planned a similar mass descent upon Washington two decades earlier, in 1941, before canceling the demonstration after President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to stronger federal anti-discrimination policies.
What Randolph envisioned in early 1963 was a two-day gathering aimed at drawing attention to ‘the economic subordination of the American Negro.’ As sketched out by Randolph’s close aide Bayard Rustin, ‘a broad and fundamental program of economic justice’ and in particular ‘the creation of more jobs for all Americans’ would be the March’s substantive goal. ‘Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodations’ — at that time the Civil Rights Movement’s most visible aims — ‘will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists,’ Rustin asserted.
Randolph and Rustin imagined as many as 100,000 protesters besieging Congress on one day in May and then a public mass rally the following day. As weeks went by in early 1963, their target date shifted to mid-June, then October, but neither of the two largest civil rights groups — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), headed by the sometimes cautious Roy Wilkins, and the National Urban League (NUL), led by Whitney Young — offered support or encouragement when informed of Randolph’s plan.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were too busy and preoccupied during the early months of 1963 with planning a major upcoming protest campaign in Birmingham, Ala., to react in any fashion to Randolph’s incipient idea. SCLC’s Birmingham demonstrations got underway in earnest in April 1963, but more than four weeks went by before those protests climaxed with internationally distributed scenes of Birmingham policemen and firemen letting loose with snarling German shepherds and high-powered fire hoses against African-American marchers and onlookers. SCLC’s Birmingham campaign was aimed at winning desegregated facilities and new job opportunities in the city’s downtown department stores, but Birmingham’s vituperatively racist public safety commissioner, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, was committed to doing everything he could to obstruct any possible negotiated accord between the downtown business community and the African-American protesters. Up until May of 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s administration had sought to keep civil rights issues on the back burner, notwithstanding violent flare-ups when Southern segregationists had attacked ‘Freedom Riders’ seeking to desegregate interstate buses in May 1961 and federal officials implementing court-ordered integration of the University of Mississippi in October 1962.
The Birmingham protests, however, drew the Kennedy administration into daily, face-to-face attempts to arrange a truce in a local crisis that had rapidly spiraled into a major national news story and then an international embarrassment to the United States. A negotiated accord ending Birmingham’s mass protest marches eventually was reached, but furious segregationists sought to derail the settlement with terror bombings and other acts of retaliation.
Birmingham, and the worldwide news coverage its violence received, catapulted the Southern civil rights struggle to greater national prominence than it had ever before attained. Martin Luther King, speaking to his close friend and adviser Stanley Levison on June 1 over a wiretapped phone line, told Levison, ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration.’ (J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, believing Levison to be a secret Communist who might be manipulating King, had obtained Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s approval for the wiretapping a year earlier. The transcripts of those wiretaps were released to me, pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, in the mid-1980s.) Because of Birmingham, King told Levison, ‘We are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement’ that could pressure the Kennedy administration to finally take decisive action on behalf of black civil rights.
More specifically, King told Levison that they should publicly announce a ‘march on Washington,’ for ‘the threat itself may so frighten the President that he would have to do something.’ Given the standoffish attitude that the Kennedy brothers had manifested toward King and the movement from January 1961 up through May 1963, neither King nor his colleagues had any expectation whatsoever that the Kennedys would change their stance absent widespread objections.
King’s hope was that the president could unilaterally issue an executive order nullifying segregation, and a week after his wiretapped conversation about a march King went public, saying that such an event could feature’sit-in’ protests at the U.S. Capitol. ‘Dr. King Denounces President on Rights’ was The New York Times headline on the resulting news story.
But neither King nor the press knew that privately, for more than two weeks, the president, his attorney general brother and their closest civil rights advisers had been secretly putting together an outline for a dramatically far-reaching civil rights bill that the administration would place before Congress. On the evening of June 11, John F. Kennedy went on nationwide television to announce that proposal and to tell the American people that the civil rights struggle confronted them ‘primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.’
Kennedy’s remarkable address deeply impressed King. ‘He was really great,’ King told Levison in yet another wiretapped phone call. Most immediately, King added, Kennedy’s speech meant that their March on Washington now ought to target Congress, not the president. King publicly amplified that thought a week later in Birmingham: ‘As soon as they start to filibuster, I think we should march on Washington with a quarter of a million people.’
But two important entities were unpersuaded of the political wisdom of any such march. One was the two mainline civil rights groups that previously had rebuffed Randolph, the NAACP and the NUL. The other was the Kennedy administration, which quickly invited King, Randolph, Young and other civil rights leaders to a private meeting with the president on June 22. ‘We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol,’ John Kennedy told them. ‘It seemed to me a great mistake to announce a march on Washington before the bill was even in committee. The only effect is to create an atmosphere of intimidation — and this may give some members of Congress an out.’
A. Philip Randolph tried to rebut the president’s worries, but Kennedy was adamant, saying, ‘To get the votes we need, we have, first, to oppose demonstrations which will lead to violence, and, second, give Congress a fair chance to work its will.’ The president did not explicitly ask for cancellation of the March, but his message was clear. King told reporters that ‘we feel a demonstration would help the President’s civil rights legislation’ rather than hurt it, but NAACP leader Roy Wilkins was noncommittal, and in private he told his colleagues that only ‘quiet, patient lobbying tactics’ should be employed.
Two days later, at a decisive planning meeting, Wilkins expressed worries about any assemblage that might feature a ‘tinge of Harlem,’ but the NAACP grudgingly agreed to endorse a one-day Washington event on Wednesday, August 28. Yet other civil rights supporters remained extremely worried about the March; African-American Congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr., of Detroit, warned King that in Washington there was increasing concern about ‘disciplinary problems’ at such a demonstration, and that the announcement of the August 28 date had made ‘a lot of people nervous.’
In early July, the March organizers announced that no sit-ins or civil disobedience would be part of the August 28 gathering, and worries about what would occur began to recede. On July 17, President Kennedy, choosing to embrace the inevitable, publicly endorsed the March, and administration officials quietly began assisting March planners in innumerable ways. King, echoing Randolph’s original theme, told journalists the March would ‘arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro,’ but the Urban League’s Whitney Young voiced the new consensus that had resulted from Kennedy’s metamorphosis: The March would be ‘an all-inclusive demonstration of our belief in the President’s program.’
As August 28 drew close, planners agreed on an afternoon rally at the Lincoln Memorial where speeches by March leaders would be interspersed among musical performances by noted entertainers. King would speak last, and four days before the March he told Al Duckett, a black journalist who was ghostwriting a forthcoming King book on the Birmingham campaign (eventually titled Why We Can’t Wait), that his August 28 oration needed to be’sort of a Gettysburg Address.’
But given how hectically frantic King’s daily schedule usually was, only in the early morning hours of August 28 itself did King finish his final revisions on an advance text of a speech. When typed out and mimeographed for advance distribution to the press, it came to less than three legal-size, double-spaced pages. Yet for King to produce any sort of an advance text for a speech was almost unprecedented, since whether at civil rights rallies or in Sunday morning church sermons, Martin Luther King Jr. almost always spoke extemporaneously, often with no outline or notes whatsoever in front of him. As Drew Hansen writes in his new book The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, ‘King did not so much write most of his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he had used many times before,’ material that King the preacher knew by heart.
After master of ceremonies A. Philip Randolph introduced King as ‘the moral leader of our nation,’ King addressed the huge late afternoon crowd of more than 250,000. He began by commending his listeners for joining ‘what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.’ Then King began to make his way through his advance text almost verbatim, making reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and to the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, promises that remained unfulfilled for black Americans, King noted. Speaking metaphorically, King compared those promises to a ‘bad check’ that the United States should now make good on. Using one of his favorite rhetorical devices, an anaphora featuring the recurring phrase ‘Now is the time,’ King called for America to live up to those promises. He made no direct reference to Congress or to Kennedy’s pending civil rights bill, but he did identify discriminatory evils that federal legislation could eliminate. After quoting the prophet Amos on justice and righteousness, King was close to the end of his prepared text. He later recalled that moment:
I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point, and just all of a sudden, I decided — the audience response was wonderful that day, you know — and all of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used — I’d used it many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why, I hadn’t thought about it before the speech.
King had indeed used it before — in Albany, Ga., and in Rocky Mount, N.C., in the fall of 1962, and in both Birmingham and in Detroit a few months earlier — but on none of those occasions had it had anywhere near the impact that it did on August 28. ‘I have a dream,’ King began, again introducing an echoing phrase. He quoted from the Declaration of Independence, alluded to the segregationist doctrines of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, and then reiterated his ‘dream’ that one day even Alabama would achieve interracial harmony. He ended his ‘I have a dream’ repetition by quoting from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, and then, in his concluding lines, returned to the closing that appeared in his advance text. Adding several lines from a traditional American patriotic song, King expanded on its call to ‘let freedom ring’ from every mountainside by appending some notable Southern mountains to its list of American peaks. He ended with a line he often used as a closing: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’
As Drew Hansen notes in The Dream, ‘had King not decided to leave his written text, it is doubtful that his speech at the march would be remembered at all,’ for up until the beginning of his ‘dream’ anaphora, King’s oration had been impressive but not memorable. But once that spontaneous inspiration took hold, King shifted forcefully into his voice as a preacher, rather than just a public speaker, and for the first time a national American audience was exposed to King’s real sermonic power. It was a gift that King had polished in black Southern churches for more than a decade, a gift that movement colleagues had encountered from the onset of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott forward, but only on August 28 did such a huge crowd, plus a live national television audience, hear the extemporaneous genius that made King such a remarkable preacher.
‘I Have a Dream’ was the signature touchstone of the August 28 March, but the hugely influential success of the March lay in its impressive turnout and in its utterly friendly and easygoing tone, far more so than in King’s address. Ten months later Kennedy’s bill, championed in Congress by the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was signed into law as the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and one year after that the other bookend legislative achievement of the Southern civil rights struggle, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also became law.
But in the years after 1965, the glow of the 1963 March, and of the entire 1963–65 civil rights apex, rapidly receded. King himself quickly sensed the deteriorating political scene, and even in mid-1965 he woefully complained about how ‘often in these past two years I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare.’ That nightmare formulation recurred often in King’s speeches and sermons during 1966 and 1967, and as Drew Hansen rightly observes, ‘between 1963 and 1968, few people spent substantial time talking or thinking about what King had said at the march.’ Indeed, by the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, King’s speech ‘had nearly vanished from public view.’
Yet the tragedy of King’s assassination quickly returned his 1963 speech to the popular eye. ‘Within a few weeks of King’s death,’ Hansen explains, ‘the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech had regained all the public visibility it had lost since 1963.’ Indeed, it ‘gradually came to dominate public memory of King’s legacy,’ thereby raising the significant danger that its upbeat and optimistic tone would distract most if not all attention from the more radically challenging and harshly critical parts of King’s legacy that were most obvious during his 1967-68 public attacks on American economic inequality and American foreign policy.
But 40 years after the March on Washington, there is no gainsaying that Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ has entered American public culture as ‘the oratorical equivalent of the Declaration of Independence,’ as Hansen puts it. If its fame threatens to swamp the balance of King’s legacy, and if its stature directs historical memory only toward the brightest and not the bleakest days of the 1960s black freedom movement, it nonetheless remains the most notable oratorical achievement of the 20th century — a’sort of a Gettysburg Address’ indeed.
This article was written by David J. Garrow and originally published in August 2003 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to American History magazine today!
Martin Luther King Jr. FBI’s Campaign to Discredit the Civil Rights Leader
By Richard Gid Powers
A nation that could rarely agree on anything found itself in rare agreement about the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of racial harmony represented a noble goal for America, and King himself was the moral embodiment of that dream. Everyone, it seemed, could agree on that.
The March on Washington touched off an explosion at the FBI. When the dust had settled and discipline had been re-established, the Bureau embarked on a campaign to utterly discredit King, to destroy him personally and as a public figure. It was a war that the Bureau would continue to wage against King as long as he lived. It would continue, obsessively, almost maniacally, even after King was dead.
Right after the March, William C. Sullivan, head of the Bureau’s powerful Division Five, its Domestic Intelligence Division, set down his reflections on the March in an August 30 memo:
Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. 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….[I]t may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees that the Communist party, USA, does wield substantial influence over Negroes which one day could become decisive.
|Martin Luther King Jr. arrives at FBI headquarters to meet with Director J. Edgar Hoover on December 1, 1964. About two weeks earlier, Hoover had publicly labeled King a ‘notorious liar’ and the civil rights leader responded by implying that the director was senile.|
The March produced a radical change in the Bureau’s tactics toward King. For the past two years the FBI had been watching King with mounting hostility. After the March the Bureau shifted from a hostile–but relatively passive–surveillance of King to an aggressive–at times violently aggressive–campaign to destroy him.
King’s biographer, David J. Garrow, has demonstrated rather conclusively that the origin of the Bureau’s suspicion of King was its discovery in January 1962 that a wealthy New York businessman named Stanley Levison had emerged as King’s closest adviser. And Levison, according to the Bureau’s most trusted informants in the American Communist Party, code-named ‘Solo’ (Jack and Morris Childs), had been until about 1954 the American Communist Party’s most important financier. Then he had apparently dropped out of the party. Now the Bureau learned that it had been shortly after Levison’s supposed separation from the party when he had befriended King. The Bureau’s conclusion–based on circumstantial logic rather than hard evidence–was that Levison represented an ambitious and apparently successful Communist plan to gain control over the Civil Rights Movement and its most prominent spokesman, Martin Luther King.
The Bureau’s hostility toward King had been exacerbated by King’s criticism of the FBI’s performance in the field of civil rights. When the Bureau’s overtures to King were ignored–perhaps due to staff incompetence in his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) office–King’s failure to respond was interpreted by the Bureau as evidence of his insincerity and proof that he held a deep-seated hostility toward the Bureau, sentiments the FBI habitually regarded as evidence of even more deep-seated subversive tendencies.
When the Bureau installed wiretaps in King’s office, these taps provided absolutely no evidence that Levison’s interest in King was other than a shared commitment to the civil rights movement. They did, however, provide the FBI with its first inkling of King’s promiscuous sexual activities, which would later be amply augmented by surveillance bugs installed in his hotel rooms.
Given the Bureau’s concerns over King’s association with Levison and Jack O’Dell, another SCLC staff member with a Communist history, Sullivan had Division Five produce a report on Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement, with particular attention to its likely role in the upcoming March. Sullivan’s August 23 report concluded that ‘there has been an obvious failure of the Communist Party of the United States to appreciably infiltrate, influence, or control large numbers of American Negroes in this country.’ Although the report played it safe by saying ‘time alone will tell’ whether future efforts by the party to exploit blacks would be as unsuccessful as those in the past, Sullivan’s conclusion was that Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement was negligible and need be of no further concern to the Bureau or the country.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was baffled. Sullivan’s latest report contradicted the steady stream of information he had been sending Hoover about Communist influences on King. Hoover fired the report back at Sullivan with the handwritten comment that ‘this memo reminds me vividly of those I received when Castro took over Cuba. You contended then that Castro and his cohorts were not communists and not influenced by communists. Time alone proved you wrong. I for one can’t ignore the memos re [deletion, presumably Levison and O’Dell] as having only an infinitesimal effect on the efforts to exploit the American Negro by the Communists.’
Sullivan later explained to a Senate committee that the August 23 report precipitated a crisis between him and Hoover: ‘This [memorandum] set me at odds with Hoover….A few months went by before he would speak to me. Everything was conducted by exchange of written communications. It was evident that we had to change our ways or we would all be out on the street.’
Following the August 23 report, whenever Domestic Intelligence sent Hoover anything on King and Levison (or for that manner, anything on Communist activities), Hoover would ridicule it with comments like ‘just infinitesimal!’ (on a report on Communist plans for participating in the March) or ‘I assume CP functionary claims are all frivolous’ (on a report on Communist plans to hold follow-up rallies after the March to advance ‘the cause of socialism in the United States’).
At this point Sullivan evidently panicked. Instead of holding to what he felt was an accurate assessment of the declining fortunes of the American Communists, his memo to Hoover after the March retracted everything he had said on August 23: ‘The Director is correct. We were completely wrong about believing the evidence was not sufficient to determine some years ago that Fidel Castro was not a communist or under communist influence. On investigating and writing about communism and the American Negro, we had better remember this and profit by the lesson it should teach us.’
Then he issued his denunciation of King as ‘the most dangerous Negro of the future’ and concluded that ‘we greatly regret that the memorandum did not measure up to what the director has a right to expect from our analysis.’
Sullivan followed this memo with a recommendation on September 16, 1963, calling for ‘increased coverage of communist influence on the Negro.’ And he now proposed something new: ‘We are stressing the urgent need for imaginative and aggressive tactics to be utilized through our Counterintelligence Program–these designed to neutralize or disrupt the Party’s activities in the Negro field.’
Stripped of euphemisms, Sullivan was proposing unleashing on Martin Luther King the aggressive and disruptive techniques the Bureau had been using against foreign intelligence agents and Communists.
After he retracted his August 23 memorandum Sullivan tried to prove the strength of his latest set of convictions by becoming the most aggressive advocate of the Bureau’s new campaign to discredit King within the government, to disrupt and neutralize his movement and to destroy him professionally and personally.
When Hoover finally adopted Sullivan’s revised conclusion as Bureau policy, he pointed to the March on Washington as the most graphic illustration of the Communist Party’s influence over King and his movement. In a letter to the Special Agents in Charge in the field, Hoover wrote:
The history of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) is replete with its attempts to exploit, influence and recruit the Negro. The March on Washington, August 28, 1963, was a striking example as party leaders early put into motion efforts to accrue gains for the CPUSA from the March. The presence at the March of around 200 Party members, ranging from several national functionaries headed by CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall to many rank-and-file members, is clear indication of the party’s favorite target (the Negro) today. All indications are that the March was not the ‘end of the line:’ and that the party will step up its efforts to exploit racial unrest and in every possible way claim credit for itself relating to any ‘gains’ achieved by the Negro.
On December 23, FBI executives, including Sullivan, F.S. Baumgardner, three other headquarters officials and two agents from Atlanta, met to draw up plans against King. During the nine-hour session at FBI headquarters, they considered 21 proposals, including one that focused on ways of turning King’s wife against him. The conclusion of the meeting was that the Bureau would gather information about King to use ‘at an opportune time in a counterintelligence move to discredit him….We will, at the proper time when it can be done without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King as an opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain.’
Two weeks later Sullivan was even contemplating what the post-Martin Luther King world would be like if the Bureau’s plans succeeded:
Civil Rights Leader ProjectMs. Manzelli and Ms. ConnollyWhat: Students will be able to research a prominent civil rights leader and create a poster displaying facts and your thoughts about the leader
’s role in the
movement.Why: We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I Have a Dream
speech. Martin Luther King (MLK) is the most famous leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.Slavery in America was ended in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed theEmancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. Yet 100 years later, African-Americans lived in a segregated society (for example: black people had to sit at the back of busses, blacks and whites used separate water fountains and bathrooms,and there were separate schools for black and white students).
MLK’s philosophy of non
-violent resistance (which he learned from Indian civilrights leader Mahatma Gandhi) was a movement that became very popular.African-Americans were encouraged to resist segregation nonviolently through sit-ins and boycotts.In his first civil rights action, MLK organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after another famous civil rights figure, Rosa Parks, refused to give her seat up to awhite man. MLK organized a city-
wide boycott of the city’s transportation system.
On August 28, 1963, MLK delivered his famous
I Have a Dream
speech which is just as well-known as it was the day he delivered it. He delivered the speech duringthe March on Washington which drew over 250,000 people to the steps of theLincoln Memorial. (Quiz: Why would having the March at the steps of the LincolnMemorial be so important for the movement?)Fast forward to today. You are sitting in a classroom full of students from aroundthe world and from many different backgrounds. Ms. Manzelli and Ms. Connollyask you to learn about the life and ideas of some of the most influential people in
this country’s history –
those who stood up for equal rights for all.Choose from the list of leaders on the board. Check the rubric as you continue your
research to make sure you’re including all of the details necessary. Be sure to keep
track of your sources and create a beautiful Works Cited list!