Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

Dr. King, the NAACP and the FBI: an untold story

January 22, 2015

Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel and an open book to those who read.          ==Peter Lee.

It’s long been known how the FBI wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how J. Edgar Hoover regarded King as a pro-Communist subversive.

This morning I came across a review by a blogger named Peter Lee of a book, Devil in the Grove, which tells the opposite side of this story—how the NAACP co-operated with J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-Communist drive in return for the FBI’s investigation of Ku Klux Klan killings in the Deep South.

American Communists were among the strongest and most dedicated supporters of labor rights and civil rights from the 1920s on.  That is why, although small in numbers, they rose to positions of influence in labor unions and civil rights organizations.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

During the start of the Cold War, labor unions such as the United Auto Workers and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP purged their ranks of Communists.  Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, was in the forefront of the anti-Communist struggle.  Marshall later became the first black Supreme Court justice.

I don’t think this was necessarily opportunism.  There was a legitimate question of dual loyalty.

Communists worldwide in the 1930s supported a Popular Front against fascism, then after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 switched instantly to opposition to the “imperialist war,” only to change back just as quickly when Hitler’s troops invaded the USSR.  This shows where their loyalties were.

I’ve been anti-Communist all my adult life, and I still am.  The problem with anti-Communism during the Cold War was not that opposition to Communism was wrong, but that people like me allowed it to override every other moral and political consideration.

Dr. King did not make that mistake.  He spoke out against U.S. intervention in Vietnam.  His most trusted white adviser, Stanley Levison, was once a key financial supporter of the American Communist Party, although, unbeknownst to the FBI, he had ceased to participate in the CPUSA after 1957.

So the FBI wiretapped him, with the knowledge and support of John and Robert Kennedy, and worked to undermine him, while Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP leadership stood aside.


The Preacher, the Black Cardinal and the Grand Inquisitor by Peter Lee on China Matters.  The title of the review refers to Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover.

The FBI and Martin Luther King by David J. Garrow for The Atlantic (2002).   Background information on the FBI investigation.

Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence

January 19, 2015

We Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our national heroes, but the only thing we remember that he stood for is that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skins.

That’s important, of course.  But many of us tend to forget his strong advocacy of economic justice and, even more, we forget his strong commitment to nonviolence, or rather mass defiance as an alternative revolutionary violence.

I am not a pacifist, as Dr. King was.  I do not believe that war is always wrong.  But the stronger reason is that I do not have the moral strength to following his teaching.  I am unable to live up to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels to love my enemies, resist not evil and do good to them that hate me.

The amazing thing about Dr. King was that he was able, for a short time, to persuade large numbers of Americans to fight without violence and to win.

Considered purely pragmatically, the nonviolent techniques of struggle advocated by Gene Sharp and practiced by Saul Alinsky have been at least as successful as revolutionary violence.

Alinsky’s career in particular is evidence that successful use of nonviolent techniques did not require Christian love or the turning of the other cheek.

My impression is that many black Americans today regard Malcolm X as a more manly role model than Dr. King.  Yet Dr. King made governors and presidents bow to his will, while Malcolm X’s struggles were mostly with other African-Americans.

This statement is not completely fair to Malcolm X, because he was murdered when his work had only just begun while Dr. King was struck down after he had accomplished most of what was in him to do.

But the fact remains that the Black Panthers and other advocates of armed struggle were much more easily crushed than the followers of Dr. King.

The power of oppressive elites is the power to compel obedience.  Their power ceases when the oppressed cease to obey.  I admit that’s easy for me to say when I’ve never put myself at physical risk in any struggle, nonviolent or otherwise.  But I believe it’s true.


A play-goer’s notes for the Shaw Festival 2014

September 2, 2014


I spent Labor Day weekend at the annual Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, just across the Canadian border in Ontario, with members of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.   We left Friday and got back Monday.

As with the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, the Shaw Festival consists of a repertory company putting on serious plays, but no longer limited to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and plays of the “Shaw era”.

The whole downtown of Niagara-on-the-Lake is devoted to shops, restaurants and hotels serving tourists, and, for many blocks around, all the homes are bed-and-breakfasts serving tourists.  They are beautiful homes with beautiful gardens, and are no doubt big money-makers for their owners, but the money spent is worth it.


themountaintop0_ORIGINALThe most memorable play I saw was The Mountaintop, which depicted the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was murdered by a white man.  The title is taken from his last speech, in which he said that he, like Moses, was not privileged to enter into the Promised Land, but saw what it was like from a mountaintop.

He was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers, whose slogan was, “I am a man.”  This is the theme of the play, that Martin Luther King was a man in a double meaning of that word—that he was a man, a person of dignity and worth, entitled to equal rights, but also that he was a man, subject to the human weaknesses to which all men are subject.

The play lasts for an hour and 40 minutes, and the play’s only two actors were on stage all that time—one playing Dr. King, the other playing Camae, an earthy hotel maid.  About 30 or so minutes of the play is devoted to the interplay of King and Camae.  In one part, she gets up on the bed and delivers her own parody civil rights speech.

Then it develops that she knows more about King than a stranger could know.  He suspects her of being an FBI agent, sent to entrap him into actions for which he could be blackmailed or discredited.  But the truth is stranger than that.

Camae is an angel (like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), sent to help prepare him for his coming death.

King doesn’t want to die.  He has plans he wants to accomplish.  In one scene, Camae arranges for him to make a long-distance telephone call to God.

“Hello, God?”
“You sound different from what I expected.”
“You sound like my grandmother.”
“I loved my grandmother.”
“Of course I love You more.”

He tells God how much he loves Him and has tried to do His will.  Then he slips into complaining about how unfair it is that he will not be allowed to complete his work.   Finally he reports with surprise that God hung up on him.

King is shown going through the stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.  Near the end of the play there is a photo montage showing events related to civil rights decade-by-decade after his death.  Wisely, there is no statement as to whether this represents a Promised Land or not.

The play strikes a difficult balance between comedy, tragedy and preaching, and avoids slipping into either silliness or offensiveness, which would have been easy to do.  This is due not only to the strong script written by Katori Hall, who as a girl lived in Memphis at the time Dr.King was shot.   It is also due to the strong performances by Kevin Hanchard and Alana Hibbert.