When you’re losing the argument, children learn that another strategy is to shift the focus and make it personal. If smearing or logic fails, a schoolyard bully may teach you that you can simply punch your opponent.
For years civil rights activist and minister Martin Luther King Jr. peacefully organized people and effectively made the arguments against segregation and for the full extension of freedom and agency to blacks in America as citizens. More declassified documents are revealing that opponents stopped at nothing to halt these ideas from spreading.
Using the power of the police and the power of the state, many whites attacked MLK from every angle and sustained repressive behaviors overtly/covertly against everyday Americans using the most despicable means and methods. They worked to erode support for them, shred their social networks, sow division, throw suspicion on them, smearing them as instigators and troublemakers and terrorists for demanding equal treatment and opportunity under the laws of their own country.
As we reflect on the events of the last year with such corollaries in the streets and in the “press”, we realize that a vocal and threatening minority of the US is still unwilling to accept its responsibility for systemic racism; they discredit all demonstrations of black and brown skin people as “riots” when most have simply been vocal demonstrations. On the other hand when you are reporting whites breaking through fences, windows and doors and marching inside the Capitol building in Washington – that is described by many as something else – something honorable, patriotic. During the events of January 6th the world also saw that the reaction of the police and the state to these primarily white marchers was very different, even ineffective, or strangely hospitable to the invaders.
“It is so relevant, and in some ways very tragic,” says film director Samuel D. Pollard of his new documentary film MLK/FBI. “Here we are in 2021 and America is still going through the same things that happened with King in the 60s.” He was speaking in an interview with the Toronto Film Festival about the FBI using wiretapping and various strategies to fan the flames of racism, rather than admit to our systemic racism, to apologize for, and to act to make whole.
Indeed as you watch the movie and see what can only be described as a cabal of entitled white government and police officials arrayed against King (thanks to newly declassified documentation), you wonder how the Civil Rights leaders ever managed to make one step forward. Unfortunately half a century later, we watch similar scenes unfold as they are shrouded in what Pollard calls ‘dog whistle dialogue.’
“(J. Edgar) Hoover was a hero for many people,” says Pollard of the FBI director who oversaw the wiretapping of MLK during intimate assignations outside his marriage and sent them to him and his wife – even writing to the activist encouraging him to commit suicide. No low was too low for Hoover to stoop to. “They were going to do it by any means necessary – bugging his colleagues, his house, anything they could.” A clear and growing threat to the established white order, all forces were marshaled to discredit him and frame MLK as a villain – and Hoover knew he had the support of the majority.
“He was a torch-bearer for ‘Justice and the American Way’ “.
Today we mark a holiday in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. and not J. Edgar Hoover. At least it gives Americans an annual reason to countenance our status as a country in regard to equal rights and opportunity for all citizens. Invariably, we are reminded that while many things are better than they once were, there is much work to be done.