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05/04/2018 00:36 SAST

Martin Luther King Jr. Was One Of The Original 'Black Identity Extremists'

Marion S.Trikoskor/Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference on March 26, 1964.

America, especially non-black America, is often quite forgetful when it comes to Martin Luther King Jr.

It prefers only to remember the warm, fuzzy parts of his legacy. It recalls perfectly that he was a pastor and spoke of peace above all else. The “I Have A Dream” speech has such a nice, nonthreatening ring to it that once a year, elementary kids recite it like racism ended when the speech did.

The preferred narrative likes to forget that King was radical, lumped in with those “angry” Black Panthers and “thuggish” Black Lives Matter activists. Like many protesters today, he called out both major parties for their bigotry and complicity. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War, specifically noting America’s colonialist imperialism made it “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

America ignores the time the FBI mailed a letter encouraging King to kill himself. And above all, it forgets he did not die peacefully. 

By definition, black protest is a radical act that the American government has deemed ― and continues to deem ― a threat. 

America ignores the time the FBI mailed a letter encouraging King to kill himself. And above all, it forgets he did not die peacefully.

In August 1956, the FBI began the Counterintelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO. Through a series of covert and oft-illegal practices, the FBI worked to surveil, infiltrate, and ultimately dismantle all social justice organizations it regarded as dangerous.

The agency’s tactics were reminiscent of a bad spy flick, but they were lethal nonetheless.

Malcolm X was one of COINTELPRO’s main targets in the final years of his life. The program’s focus on him was so intense that even now, some people suspect it was involved in his 1965 assassination. In Malcolm X: A Life Of Reinvention, Columbia University scholar Manning Marable synthesizes 10 years of research, theorizing that the FBI infiltrated the Nation of Islam to undermine Malcolm X’s reputation and paint him as an enemy of the organization. Karl Evanzz, in The Judas Factor: The Plot To Kill Malcolm X, similarly alleges that government files imply the FBI placed an informant in Nation of Islam’s leadership to plant the seeds for Malcolm X’s death.

The Black Panther Party has a similar story. COINTELPRO heavily investigated, surveilled and conspired against the organization, and files of proof are available to the public. It was such an open secret that, unlike Malcolm X and King (whose deaths are only presumed to be FBI-related), it’s near common knowledge that the FBI directly targeted and killed Fred Hampton, a leader in the national Black Panther Party. On the day of his death, Hampton was drugged by an agent who infiltrated the party and later shot during a raid on his home.   

COINTELPRO kept track of King just as it did Malcolm X and Hampton. The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, which houses materials related to Kennedy’s assassination, contains documents that revealed the extent to which the FBI attempted to smear King. (Transcripts of FBI wiretaps of King are locked away from public access until 2027.) Because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared King would become a black “messiah” figure, he directed the FBI to surveil him with particular “hostility,” as noted by the 1979 report from the House Select Committee on Assassinations. 

Joseph Klipple via Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. speaking about ending the Vietnam War at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Feb. 6, 1968.

“The FBI campaign against Dr. King extended beyond the invasion [of] his privacy. Efforts were made to interfere with SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] fundraising and with the awarding of degrees and other honors to Dr. King,” reads the committee report. “Further, an extensive effort was made to smear his name through the dissemination of derogatory information, and attempts were made to create ill feeling between Dr. King and his associates, as well as his wife.”

The King family accused government agencies of being responsible for his assassination and filed a civil lawsuit against Memphis businessman Lloyd Jowers, who in 1993 said he paid someone other than James Earl Ray to kill King.

In a 1999 trial, the King family lawyer alleged that Jowers was part of a vast conspiracy against King that involved the Mafia and the federal government. The lawyer also said that the FBI, CIA, media, Army intelligence, and state and city officials were involved in the coverup of King’s assassination.

After 70 witnesses and nearly 3,000 pages worth of trial transcript, the jury unanimously ruled in the King family’s favor. 

While the government later attempted to discredit that ruling, what is undeniable is that the FBI was heavily involved in King’s life. And although COINTELPRO supposedly ended in 1971, recent targeting of Black Lives Matter activists strongly suggests otherwise.

Your social justice idols are either co-opted and whitewashed, or they fall into the abyss of radical characters that just were 'too violent' to be effective.

Last August, the FBI created the term “black identity extremist,” a moniker eerily reminiscent of the “black extremist” papers the agency collected on the Black Panther Party. According to the FBI, “black identity extremists” are motivated by “incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans” and are risks to national security. History is blatantly repeating itself.

In March, The Intercept released a report revealing that the FBI tracked a Black Lives Matter activist in 2014 as they traveled across the country. The information was gathered through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the nonprofits Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights to reveal the modern government’s policing of black activism.

The overwhelming problem with both the mythological “black identity extremist” and the purported need for BLM surveillance is that it perpetuates the dangerous idea that black protest is inherently a violent problem in need of policing.

When you’re black, you know there are two pathways for your social justice idols. Either they’re co-opted and whitewashed, or they fall into the abyss of radical characters that just were “too violent” to be effective. The strict binary allows no room for nuance, and King’s story is just one example.

As we look back on King’s assassination, it’s increasingly important that we give space for the true narrative of his work and life. King was as much a radical as he was a pacifist. And the sooner that’s acknowledged, the sooner black protest can exist in all its complexities.  

Princess-India Alexander is a writer, storyteller and all-around creative who focuses on black and queer issues. Follow her on Twitter @IAm_ThePrincess.