'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, April 07, 2008

Cockburn on the Death of Martin Luther King 

Alexander Cockburn has consistently expressed the belief that JFK and RFK were assassinated by lone gunmen, a stance for which he has often been subjected to ridicule, but, when it comes to Martin Luther King, he feels differently:

He was assassinated forty years ago just after 6 pm as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A single rifle bullet hit him in the jaw, then severed his spinal cord. James Earl Ray, a white man, was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 99 years. Ray was certainly the gunman.

But there are credible theories of a conspiracy, possibly involving US Army intelligence, whose role in the life and death of Martin Luther King was explored by Stephens Tompkins in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1993.

The Army's interest in the King family stretched back to 1917 when the War Department opened a file on King's maternal grandfather, first president of Atlanta's branch of the NAACP. King's father, Martin Sr., also entered Army intelligence files as a potential troublemaker, as did Martin Jr. in 1947 when he was 18. He was attending Dorothy Lilley's Intercollegiate School in Atlanta and 111th Military Intelligence Group in Fort McPherson in Atlanta suspected Ms Lilley of having Communist ties.

King's famous denunciation of America's war in Vietnam came exactly a year before his murder, before a crowd of 3,000 in the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He described Vietnam's destruction at the hands of ''deadly Western arrogance,'' insisting that ''we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem." US Army spies secretly recorded black radical Stokely Carmichael warning King, "The Man don't care you call ghettos concentration camps, but when you tell him his war machine is nothing but hired killers you got trouble." Carmichael was right.

After the 1967 Detroit riots 496 black men under arrest were interviewed by agents of the Army's Psychological Operations Group, dressed as civilians. It turned out King was by far the most popular leader. That same year, watching the great antiwar march on Washington in October 1967 from the roof of the Pentagon Major General William Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for Army intelligence, concluded that "the empire was coming apart at the seams". He thought there were too few reliable troops to fight the war in Vietnam and hold the line at home.

The Army increased surveillance on King. Green Berets and other Special Forces veterans from Vietnam began making street maps and identifying sniper sites in major American cities. The Ku Klux Klan was recruited by the 20th Special Forces Group, headquartered in Alabama, as a subsidiary intelligence network. The Army began offering 30.06 sniper rifles to police departments, including that of Memphis. King was dogged by spy units through early '67. A Green Beret unit was operating in Memphis the day he was shot. The bullet that killed him came from a 30.06 rifle purchased in a Memphis store. Army intelligence chiefs became increasingly hysterical over the threat of King to national stability.

I must admit that this is not a subject that I have examined in depth. At minimum, we should be alarmed at the close relationship between the FBI, the Pentagon and white supremacists when it came to King. The prospect that they would see King as threatening is compelling, precisely because he integrated civil rights with anti-imperialism.

Cockburn correctly observes that King is now revered precisely because he was killed without successfully transforming American society as he intended. As a result, his conduct has been sanitized, the rough, populist edges worn away, as the presentation of his life has been forced to conform to a middle class model of socially acceptable behaviour. Note that the revelations about King's promiscuity are completely consistent with such an approach.

If there was a credible argument against the King holiday, it was this, that the institutionalization of celebrating King as an exemplar of the African American experience necessarily requires the deliberate misrepresentation of his life and achievements. Michael Eric Dyson indirectly touched upon this on Friday when he emphasized the judgmental, confrontation rhetoric that King used to condemn the Vietnam War when speaking before African American audiences:

. . . although King spoke famously against the Vietnam War before a largely white audience at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, exactly a year before he died, he reserved some of his strongest antiwar language for his sermons before black congregations. In his own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, two months before his death, King raged against America's "bitter, colossal contest for supremacy." He argued that God "didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world today," preaching that "we are criminals in that war" and that we "have committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world." King insisted that God "has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, 'Don't play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power.' "

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If King were alive today, Barack Obama would find himself criticized for attending one of his services, but, one suspects, there would be a different rule for whites. The curious aspect is that the fundamental subject of King's sermons, much like the ones of Jeremiah Wright that were publicized recently, was not the Vietnam War (in Wright's case, the Iraq one) or the predations of US foreign policy, but rather, the primacy of the Christian God over nations on earth created by men.

We are not exposed to punishment and degradation because of what we create these nations to do. Instead, we are exposed to it because we believe that the nation state is superior to the word of God. Accordingly, there is a hubris associated with such a belief that invariably culminates in brutality. Naturally, at a time in which Christian evangelicalism is ascendant, no one objected to this aspect of Wright's sermons. Liberals act as if this aspect of King's activism never existed.

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