"Martin Luther King himself became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws-problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam…
King now became a chief target of the FBI, which tapped his private phone conversations, sent him fake letters, threatened him, blackmailed him, and even suggested once in an anonymous letter that he commit suicide. FBI internal memos discussed finding a black leader to replace King. As a Senate report on the FBI said in 1976, the FBI tried “to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King."
- Howard Zinn, “Or Does it Explode?” A People’s History of the United States.
No assassin was ever conclusively caught. James Earl Ray, the man who went to prison for the assassination, fought the rest of his life for a retrial, at the end with the support of the King family. Whether or not the government was involved in his assassination, it is clear that as soon as King shifted his focus from civil rights to poverty, he was considered an enemy of the state.
"… it’s inevitable that we’ve got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development… when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer."
- Martin Luther King, Jr, Spring 1968. King began to realize that civil rights laws could only do so much. The true threat to black oppression was the systemic poverty that the Civil Rights laws recently passed would have no effect on. Friends close to him advised against speaking out against it since he would lose allies in Washington. He was assassinated by an unknown marksman on April 6th.
"The provisions of this section shall not apply to acts or omissions on the part of law enforcement officers, members of the National Guard … or members of the Armed Forces of the United States, who are engaged in suppressing a riot or civil disturbance…."
- United States, Civil Rights Act, 1968. It also defined a riot as three or more people involving threats of violence.
The Negroes were out there in the streets. They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington…. That they were going to march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on the Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land. I’m telling you what they said. That was revolution. That was revolution. That was the black revolution.
It was the grass roots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, D.C. to death; I was there. When they found out that this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital, they called in … these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, “Call it off,” Kennedy said. “Look you all are letting this thing go too far.” And Old Tom said, “Boss, I can’t stop it because I didn’t start it.” I’m telling you what they said. They said, “I’m not even in it, much less at the head of it.” They said, “These Negroes are doing things on their own. They’re running ahead of us.” And that old shrewd fox, he said, “If you all aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it. I’ll endorse it. I’ll welcome it. I’ll help it. I’ll join it.”
This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it… became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to he angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all…
No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover. … They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get out of town by sundown….
- Malcolm X, 1963. 3 months after the march where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. X’s tale of a federal take over would later be corroborated by Kennedy’s adviser, Arthur Schlesinger, in his book A Thousand Days. X correctly predicted the end of how much strict non-violence could accomplish for black rights in the face of systemic poverty and racism.
"The two buses that left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1963, headed for New Orleans, never got there. In South Carolina, riders were beaten. In Alabama, a bus was set afire. Freedom Riders were attacked with fists and iron bars. The southern police did not interfere with any of this violence, nor did the federal government. FBI agents watched, took notes, did nothing."
- Howard Zinn, “‘Or Does It Explode?’” A People’s History of the United States. Starting in 1961 a group called the Congress of Racial Equality organized “Freedom Rides” of mixed race interstate travel in the South. Even though segregation was illegal (since 1956), the federal government never enforced a prohibition against segregated interstate travel.
"King’s stress on love and nonviolence was powerfully effective in building a sympathetic following throughout the nation, among whites as well as blacks. But there were blacks who thought the message naive, that while there were misguided people who might be won over by love, there were others who would have to be bitterly fought, and not always with nonviolence. Two years after the Montgomery boycott [of 1956], in Monroe, North Carolina, an ex-marine named Robert Williams, the president of the local NAACP, became known for his view that blacks should defend themselves against violence, with guns if necessary. When local Klansmen attacked the home of one of the leaders of the Monroe NAACP, Williams and other blacks, armed with rifles, fired back. The Klan left."
- Howard Zinn, “‘Or Does It Explode?’” A People’s History of the United States.
We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language, we have been plunged into the abyss of oppression. And we decided to raise up only with the weapon of protest. It is one of the greatest glories of America that we have the right of protest.
If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956, speaking during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
One after the other, indicted Negro leaders took the rostrum in a crowded Baptist church tonight to urge their followers to shun the city’s buses and “walk with God.”
More than two thousand Negroes filled the church from basement to balcony and overflowed into the street. They chanted and sang; they shouted and prayed; they collapsed in the aisles and they sweltered in an eighty-five degree heat. They pledged themselves again and again to “passive resistance.” Under this banner they have carried on for eighty days a stubborn boycott of the city’s buses.
- A New York Times report of a mass meeting in Montgomery, Alabama during the bus boycott, 1955-1956.
"Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know: when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? … It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand. He called a policeman and I was arrested and placed in jail…."
- Mrs. Rosa Parks, 1955, on why she sat down in the white section of the bus.
"Our position in the post-war world is so vital to the future that our smallest actions have tar- reaching effects. .. . We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world’s press and radio are full of it…, Those with competing philosophies have stressed-and are shamelessly distorting-our shortcomings… . They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people. This may seem ludicrous to Americans, but it is sufficiently important to worry our friends. The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record."
- Committee on Civil Rights, 1946. The committee was started by Harry Truman to advise Congress on laws and policy needed for civil rights, even though the President had all the power to do so since the 1870s. Congress enacted no legislation asked for by the committee.