Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on 15th January, 1929. Both his father and grandfather were Baptist preachers who had been actively involved in the civil rights movement. King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. After considering careers in medicine and law, he entered the ministry.
While studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King heard a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. King read several books on the ideas of Gandhi, and eventually became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America. He was particularly struck by Gandhi’s words: “Through our pain we will make them see their injustice”. King was also influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his theories on how to use nonviolent resistance to achieve social change.
After his marriage to Coretta Scott, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, like most towns in the Deep South, buses were segregated. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor’s assistant, who was tired after a hard day’s work, refused to give up her seat to a white man.
After the arrest of Rosa Parks, King and his friends, Ralph David Abernathy, Edgar Nixon, and Bayard Rustin helped organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration. and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956.
In 1957 King joined with the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organisation was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”
There had been a long tradition of nonviolent resistance to racism in the United States. Frederick Douglass had advocated these methods during the fight against slavery. Other black leaders such as Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had successfully used nonviolence against racism in the 1940s. The importance of the SCLC was that now the black church, a powerful organisation in the South, was to become fully involved in the struggle for civil rights.
After the successful outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King wrote Stride Toward Freedom (1958). The book described what happened at Montgomery and explained King’s views on non-violence and direct action. Stride Toward Freedom was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students read the book and decided to take action themselves. They started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth’s store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of King they did not hit back.
King’s non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over the Deep South. This included the activities of the Freedom Riders in their campaign against segregated transport. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.
King travelled the country making speeches and inspiring people to become involved in the civil rights movement. As well as advocating non-violent student sit-ins, King also urged economic boycotts similar to the one that took place at Montgomery. He argued that as African Americans made up 10% of the population they had considerable economic power. By selective buying, they could reward companies that were sympathetic to the civil rights movement while punishing those who still segregated their workforce.
The campaign to end segregation at lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, was less successful. In the spring of 1963 police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King and large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.
King always stressed the importance of the ballot. He argued that once all African Americans had the vote they would become an important political force. Although they were a minority, once the vote was organized, they could determine the result of presidential and state elections. This was illustrated by the African American support for John F. Kennedy that helped give him a narrow victory in the 1960 election.
In the Deep South considerable pressure was put on blacks not to vote by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. An example of this was the state of Mississippi. By 1960, 42% of the population were black but only 2% were registered to vote. Lynching was still employed as a method of terrorizing the local black population. Emmett Till, a fourteen year old schoolboy was lynched for whistling at a white woman, while others were murdered for encouraging black people to register to vote. King helped organize voting registration campaigns in states such as Mississippi but progress was slow.
During the 1960 presidential election campaign John F. Kennedy argued for a new Civil Rights Act. After the election it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the African American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation.
The Civil Rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 and in a speech on television on 11th June, Kennedy pointed out that: “The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much.”
In an attempt to persuade Congress to pass Kennedy’s proposed legislation, King and other civil rights leaders organized the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin was given overall control of the march and he managed to persuade the leaders of all the various civil rights groups to participate in the planned protest meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.
The decision to appoint Bayard Rustin as chief organizer was controversial. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP was one of those who was against the appointment. He argued that being a former member of the American Communist Party made him an easy target for the right-wing press. Although Rustin had left the party in 1941, he still retained his contacts with its leaders such as Benjamin Davis.
Wilkins also feared that the fact that Rustin had been imprisoned several times for both refusing to fight in the armed forces and for acts of homosexuality, would be used against him in the days leading up to the march. However, King and Philip Randolph insisted that he was the best person for the job.
Wilkins was right to be concerned about a possible smear campaign against Rustin. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been keeping a file on Bayard Rustin for many years. An FBI undercover agent managed to take a photograph of Rustin talking to King while he was having a bath. This photograph was then used to support false stories being circulated that Rustin was having a homosexual relationship with King.
This information was now passed on to white politicians in the Deep South who feared that a successful march on Washington would persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to sponsor a proposed new civil rights act. Strom Thurmond led the campaign against Rustin making several speeches where he described him as a “communist, draft dodger and homosexual”.
Most newspapers condemned the idea of a mass march on Washington. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune warned that: “If Negro leaders persist in their announced plans to march 100,000-strong on the capital they will be jeopardizing their cause. The ugly part of this particular mass protest is its implication of unconstrained violence if Congress doesn’t deliver.”
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. Using his considerable influence in Congress, Johnson was able to get the legislation passed.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin.
King now concentrated on achieving a federal voting-rights law. In March 1965 he organized a protest march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. King was not with the marchers when they were attacked by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas. He did lead the second march but upset some of his younger followers when he turned back at the Pettus Bridge when faced by a barricade of state troopers.
After the attacks on King’s supporters at Selma, Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. This legislation proposed to remove the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Johnson explained how: “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.”
Although opposed by politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). The legislation empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list.
After the passing of these two important pieces of legislation, King concentrated on helping those suffering from poverty. King realised that race and economic issues were closely connected and he began talking about the need to redistribute wealth. In Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community (1967), King argued that African Americans and poor whites were natural allies and if they worked together they could help change society. King’s growing radicalism was illustrated in a speech he made in Selma, Alabama: “For the last twelve years we have been in the reform movement (but now) we have moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution.”
On 3rd April, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. made a speech where he outlined the reasons why he was opposed to the Vietnam War. After he made this speech, the editor of The Nation, Carey McWilliams and the Socialist Party leader, Norman Thomas, urged King to run as a third-party presidential candidate in 1968.
William F. Pepper suggested that King should challenge Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. King rejected this idea but instead joined with Pepper to establish the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP). “From this platform, Dr King planned to move into mainstream politics as a potential candidate on a presidential ticket with Dr Benjamin Spock in order to highlight the anti-poverty, anti-war agenda.”
In his autobiography, William C. Sullivan, Deputy Director of the FBI, admitted that this decision created a great deal of concern to the ruling elite. “The Civil Rights Movement which began in the late 1950s gave organization and impetus to the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. The tactics of direct action against authority that proved successful in the earlier struggle were used as a model for the students of the New Left.”
Pepper was later to discover that the wiretaps of the conversations that took place about King becoming a third-party candidate “were relayed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and, through him, to Lyndon Johnson.” According to Anthony Summers, Hoover suggested to Johnson that the best way of dealing with King and Malcolm X would be to “get those two guys fighting”. He added the problem could be solved “if we could get them to kill one another off.”
Hoover told William C. Sullivan when he became head of the Intelligence Division in 1961 that “King was an instrument of the Communist Party” and posed “a serious threat to the security of the country.” Hoover instructed Sullivan to get evidence that “King had a relationship with the Soviet bloc”. Despite an intensive surveillance campaign, Sullivan was unable to find a clear link between King and the American Communist Party. When told this by Sullivan, Hoover replied: “I kept saying that Castro was a Communist and you people wouldn’t believe me. Now they are saying that King is not a Communist and you’re just as wrong this time as you were with Castro.”
Sullivan continued in his campaign to discredit King. In a memo to Hoover in December, 1963, Sullivan wrote: “When the true facts concerning his (King’s) activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal… When that is done… the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction.”
In June, 1967, Hoover had a meeting with fellow gambler, close friend, and Texas oil billionaire, H. L. Hunt in Chicago. Hunt was very concerned that the activities of King might unseat Lyndon B. Johnson. This could be an expensive defeat as Johnson doing a good job protecting the oil depletion allowance. According to William Pepper: “ Hoover said he thought a final solution was necessary. Only that action would stop King.”
It was King’s opposition to the Vietnam War that really upset Hoover. According to Richard N. Goodwin, Hoover told Johnson that “Bobby Kennedy was hiring or paying King off to stir up trouble over the Vietnam War.” It is true that Robert Kennedy, like King, was growing increasingly concerned about the situation in Vietnam. Johnson became convinced that Kennedy was leaking information to the press about his feelings on the war. At a meeting on 6 th February, 1967, Johnson told Robert F. Kennedy: “I’ll destroy you and everyone one of your dove friends. You’ll be dead politically in six months.”
Martin Luther King continued his campaign against the Vietnam War. This upset the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In October, 1961, McNamara established the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). This took over the U.S. Army’s Strategic Intelligence Unit. However, following the racial riots at Oxford, Mississippi, the on-scene commander, Major General Creighton V. Abrahams, wrote a report on the performance of army intelligence at Oxford. It included the following: “We in the Army should launch a major intelligence project, without delay, to identify personalities, both black and white, and develop analyses of the various civil rights situations in which they became involved.” Abrahams’ advice was accepted and in 1967 the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB) was formed as part of the U.S. Army Intelligence Command (USAINTC) based at Fort Holabird, Maryland. It was the MIB that now began to take a close look at the activities of Martin Luther King.
On 19th February, 1968, Cesar Chavez, the trade union leader, began a hunger strike in protest against the violence being used against his members in California. Robert F. Kennedy went to the San Joaquin Valley to give Chavez his support and told waiting reporters: “I am here out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time – Cesar Chavez. I congratulate all of you who are locked with Cesar in the struggle for justice for the farm worker and in the struggle for justice for Spanish-speaking Americans.”
Chavez was also a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. Kennedy had begun to link the campaign against the war with the plight of the disadvantaged. Martin Luther King was following a similar path with his involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign. As William F. Pepper has pointed out: “If the wealthy, powerful interests across the nation would find Dr King’s escalating activity against the war intolerable, his planned mobilization of half a million poor people with the intention of laying siege to Congress could only engender outrage – and fear.”
In February, 1968, Memphis clergyman James Lawson, informed Martin Luther King about the sanitation workers’ dispute in the city. Over 90% of the 13,000 sanitation workers in Memphis were black. Men were often sent home by management during working hours and this resulted in them losing pay. Much of the equipment they used was old and in a bad state of repair. The dispute began when two sanitation workers, Echole Cole and Robert Walker were killed by a malfunctioning “garbage packer” truck. There was no company insurance scheme and the men’s families did not receive any compensation except for a month’s pay and a contribution towards funeral expenses.
The local branch of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) threatened strike action unless working conditions improved in Memphis. When negotiations failed to achieve an acceptable solution to this problem, the sanitation workers went on strike. A protest march on 23 rd February, ended in violence when the local police used Mace on the marchers. At this point, Rev. James Lawson, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became chairman of the strike strategy committee. The Community on the Move for Equality (COME), a coalition of labour and civil rights groups, also gave its support to the sanitation workers. Roy Wilkins of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Bayard Rustin of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), agreed to speak at a strike meeting on 14 th March. Martin Luther King also agreed to help and it was announced he would speak at a public meeting in Memphis on 18 th March.
At the meeting King expressed his solidarity with the sanitation workers and called for a general strike to take place in Memphis. This caused create concern amongst the ruling elite. Many people interpreted the idea of a general strike as a tactic that had been employed by revolutionaries in several European countries. The strategy of King seemed to be an attempt to link the campaign against poverty with the civil rights struggle and the protests against the war in Vietnam. In his speeches King argued that the money being spent on the war was making it more difficult for Lyndon B. Johnson to fulfil the promises he had made about improving America’s welfare system.
James Lawson later claimed that King “saw the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as the beginning of a non-violent revolution that would redistribute income.” He argued his long term plan was to “shut down the nation’s capital in the spring of 1968 through massive civil disobedience until the government agreed to abolish poverty.” He added that the government became especially upset after he began making speeches against the Vietnam War.
King’s strategy of linking poverty, civil rights and the Vietnam War seemed to be mirroring the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Both men appeared to be seriously threatening the status quo and in that sense were acting as revolutionaries. Recently released FBI files show that during this period J. Edgar Hoover reported to Johnson that Kennedy and King were working together in order to undermine his presidency.
On 28 th March, 1968, King led a march from Clayborn Temple to the Memphis city hall. Although the organizers had ordered the marchers to refrain from any acts of violence, groups of young people ignored the marshals’ instructions and created a great deal of damage to shops on the way to the city hall. A sixteen-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot dead by the police who claimed he was a looter. An eyewitness said that Payne had his hands up when shot.
King was convinced that the violence on the march had been caused by government provocateurs. According to Coretta Scott King, her husband returned to Memphis on 3rd April to prepare for a truly non-violent march and to prove SCLC could still carry out a pacifist campaign in Washington. That night King made a speech at the Mason Temple. The I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech It ended with the following words: “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. And 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’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. 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.”
After the meeting King and his party were taken to the Lorraine Motel. The following day King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the motel. His death was followed by rioting in 125 cities and resulted in forty-six people being killed. Two months later, James Earl Ray was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. He pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sent to jail for ninety-nine years.
People close to King were convinced that the government was behind the assassination. Ralph Abernathy, who replaced King as head of the SCLC, claimed that he had been killed “by someone trained or hired by the FBI and acting under the orders from J. Edgar Hoover”. Whereas James Lawson, the leader of the strike in Memphis remarked that: “I have no doubt that the government viewed all this (the Poor People’s Campaign and the anti-Vietnam War speeches) seriously enough to plan his assassination.”
William F. Pepper, who was to spend the next forty years investigating the death of Martin Luther King, discovered evidence that Military Intelligence was involved in the assassination. In his book, Orders to Kill, Pepper names members of the 20 th Special Forces Group (SFG) as being part of the conspiracy.
Even the Deputy Director of the FBI, William C. Sullivan, who led the investigation into the assassination, believed that there was a conspiracy to kill King. In his autobiography published after his death, Sullivan wrote: “I was convinced that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but I doubt if he acted alone… Someone, I feel sure, taught Ray how to get a false Canadian passport, how to get out of the country, and how to travel to Europe because he would never have managed it alone. And how did Ray pay for the passport and the airline tickets?” Sullivan also admits that it was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and not the FBI who successfully tracked Ray down to London.
In a television interview from prison that took place in 1988, James Earl Ray claimed the FBI agents threatened to jail his father and one of his brothers if he did not confess to King’s murder. Ray added that he had been framed to cover up an FBI plot to kill King.
However, there is evidence that it was another organization that was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King. According to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, military intelligence became very interested in the activities of King after he began making speeches against the Vietnam War. In a report published in 1972, the committee claimed that in the spring of 1968 King’s organization was “infiltrated by the 109 th, 111 th and 116 th Military Intelligence Groups.” In his book, An Act of State, William F. Pepper points out that the committee was surprised when it discovered that military intelligence appeared to be very interested in where King was “staying in various cities, as well as details concerning housing facilities, offices, bases of operations, churches and private homes.” The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee commented: “Why such information was sought has never been explained.”