Question for Discussion: What
are the major goals
of the civil rights movement?
Reading: Loewen, pp. 230-237; Hoffman, pp. 364-372;
Gerster, pp. 221-224; King "American
King "I have a Dream" (web); "FBI
From Montgomery to Memphis,
Who Killed Martin Luther King?
The Civil Rights Movement
in the 1960s
Martin Luther King and the
Martin Luther King's Speeches
1. King and the Goals
of the Civil Rights Movement
2. Major Civil Rights Victories
3. The FBI and Martin Luther King
1. Why did the White mob single out the reporters
for attack when they were beating up the Freedom Riders in Montgomery,
2. What does King mean in his "Letter
from a Birmingham Jail" when he writes, "Injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny"?
3. According to King, how does non-violent
civil disobedience work to change people's minds?
4. How does King distinguish a just from an
5. What does King mean when he declares, "the
goal of American is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be,
our destiny is tied up with America's destiny"?
6. In his "The American Dream" speech,
what does King mean by the American Dream?
7. Why does King tie the goals of the Civil
Rights movement with the American Dream?
8. In his "I have a Dream" speech,
what is King's larger dream for America?
9. Why does King believe that Blacks' freedom
is inextricably tied to Americans' freedom?
10. Does King believe that America can be
free if Blacks and people of color are not free?
11. Why do you think the FBI is determined
to neutralize the Civil Rights movement?
12. Why does the FBI fear Martin Luther King
so much that they would attempt to destroy him and neutralize the
Civil Rights movement?
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther
King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for parading without a
permit. Like thousands of other Black demonstrators, King was arrested
and harassed for exercising his Constitutional rights to protest,
to challenge the government, and to speak their minds. Southern
Whites, however, refused to recognize Blacks' rights to challenge
segregation and Jim Crow. While King was in jail, he wrote a response
to a group of White Birmingham clergymen who charged that he was
a rabble-rouser, come to their city to make trouble, and that he
should let Whites and Blacks in Birmingham work out their own problems
in their own way. King's response came in the form of his famous,
"Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in which he lays out
why he is in jail and some of the larger goals of the Civil Rights
King's larger argument is that he and
other Black and White Americans can not ignore injustice in Birmingham.
"I am cognizant of the interrelatedness
of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and
not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
"Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the
narrow provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who
lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider
anywhere within its bounds."
Moreover, King argues that he is in
jail not because he is a criminal but because of unjust laws. The
goals of the Civil Rights movement is to challenge these unjust
laws that deny Blacks their full citizenship and full rights as
Americans. King now argues that Blacks will win their fight because
"our destiny is tied up with America's destiny." Just
like Frederick Douglass one hundred years earlier, King is arguing
that Americans can't be free as long as Blacks aren't free. If Blacks
are denied the basic rights of Americans and their opportunity to
achieve the American Dream, then all Americans rights and opportunities
are threatened. If Blacks are denied the right to protest, to assemble
to speak their mind, to challenge their government, to vote, and
to be heard, what keeps Whites and other Americans from being denied
these rights as well?
King clarified and expands on the larger
goals of the Civil Rights movement in his 1961 "The American
Dream" speech and his 1963 "I have a Dream" speech.
I believe that "The American Dream" speech is an earlier
version of his later "I have a Dream" speech. In his "The
American Dream" speech, King argues that America is essentially
a dream, "a dream of a land where men of all races, of all
nationalities and and of all creeds can live together as brothers."
King argues that America cannot achieve this dream as long as some
Americans are denied their basic rights and freedoms. He challenges
"If America is to remain a first-class
nation she can no longer have second-class citizens. Now, more than
ever before, America is challenged to bring her noble dream into
reality, and those who are working to implement the American dream
are the true saviors of democracy."
For King, the Civil Rights movement
isn't about Black rights or Black freedom but American rights and
freedom. By fighting to make Blacks free and equal citizens, they
are fighting for the rights and freedoms of all Americans.
In his 1963 "I have a Dream"
speech," King again challenges Americans to realize that the
Dream of America is freedom and that all Americans are "guaranteed
the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
He tell Blacks that "many of our white brothers...have come
to realize that their destiny is tied inextricably bound to our
freedom." King challenges both White and Black Americans to
help America realize this dream of freedom, to make America the
great free and just nation that it believes itself to be. By realizing
this dream, America will finally be true to its noblest goals and
ambitions. Thus, the Civil Rights movement isn't about Black rights,
or White rights, but American's rights, and the freedom and liberty
of the larger American society. In his 1965 "Speech on the
Voting Rights Act," President Johnson echoed King's message:
"There is no Negro problem. There
is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only
an American problem."
The Civil Rights movement won major
victories in the 1960s in the struggle to make Blacks full and equal
citizens by convincing Americans that denying Blacks their rights
threatened freedom and liberty in the United States.
But from the 1950s to the early 1970s,
the FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover was committed to neutralizing the
Civil Rights movement. Hoover even charged that King's "I have
a Dream" speech was just "communist propaganda. Beginning
in the 1950s, the FBI wiretapped, bugged, followed, spied on, harassed,
and intimidated the major leaders and organizers of the Civil Rights
movement. Hoover and the FBI were sure that the Civil Rights movement
was part of a larger "communist conspiracy" that was being
directed by the Soviet Union. Being a racist and a white supremacist,
Hoover believed that Blacks were just not smart enough to be directing
and leading the Civil Rights movement by themselves. The two best
studies of the FBI's campaign to neutralize and discredit the Civil
Rights movement are: Kenneth O'Reilly's Racial Matters: The FBI's
Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 and Michael Friedly
and David Gallen's Martin Luther King: The FBI File. From
these studies it is clear that the FBI was committed to neutralizing
and destroying the Civil Rights movement.
We now must ask the larger question:
What was the Civil Rights movement doing that led the federal government
and the FBI to believe they were a threat to the nation and it could
use its powers to crush the movement and deny these Black and White
Americans involved in the movement their basic civil and political
rights? In the FBI's internal memo, "Counterintelligence
Program: Black Nationalist Hate Groups," obtained as a result
of a Freedom of Information request, the FBI lays out its larger
strategy for neutralizing the Civil Rights movement. The memo describes
the FBI's five major goals:
1. Prevent the coalition of militant
2. Prevent the rise of a messiah who
could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.
3. Prevent violence on the part of
black nationalist groups.
4. Prevent militant black nationalist
groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them....
5. A final goal should be to prevent
the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations,
especially among youth.
Two of the FBI's major targets are
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference. These are the two most popular and powerful
mainstream Black Civil Rights organizations. Clearly, the FBI was
worried that the Civil Rights movement might become successful and
a powerful force in American politics. The FBI concluded that the
federal government could not afford to let this happen.
The FBI was obsessed with Martin Luther
King, who they saw as the most powerful and popular leader of the
the Civil Rights movement. In Racial Matters, Kenneth O'Reilly
quoted a number of top FBI agents who said:
"Hoover dreamed of destroying
Dr. King and replacing him with a "manageable black leader.
And a few of the more confident FBI officials, William Sullivan
included, tried to find one. In January 1964, when Sullivan proposed
to remove King from his pedestal, he suggested that the Bureau replace
King with the "right kind" of black leader." (142)
In fact, in 1964, the FBI sent King a tape they
had made of him having sex with women other than his wife and they
threatened to release it to the public if he didn't resign his leadership
of the movement. But the letter they sent with the tape blackmailing
him when even further. The FBI wrote:
"King, look into your
heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to
all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds
of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this times that
is any where near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know
it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at
and the letter went on to say:
"King, there is only one
thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have 34 days
in which to do...it. You are done. There is but one way out for
you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent
self is bared to the nation."
Here the FBI was actually suggesting
that King should commit suicide to save himself from these embarrassing
public revelations. This letter and the FBI's obsession with destroying
Martin Luther King raises some very critical questions about American
democracy in the 1960s.
What is the FBI and the government
doing when they set out to destroy a political movement like the
Civil Rights movement? How can a democratic government deny the
basic civil and political rights of its citizens in this manner?
Isn't it the responsibility of the government to protect the civil
and political rights of all Americans? When the government takes
it upon itself to decide which Americans should have rights and
which political movements will be allowed to exist isn't the government
undermining America's democratic institutions and American's basic
rights? The FBI's action against the Civil Rights movement and other
political movements in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates that during
the Cold War America's democratic institutions were threatened and
weakened. In fighting for global democracy and freedom, the federal
government undermine many of the basic American freedoms and rights
that American democracy is based on. The actions of the FBI against
the Civil Rights movement illustrate an American government increasingly
out of control and disdainful of America's democratic institutions
and rights. In fact, after receiving the blackmail letter from the
FBI suggesting that he commit suicide, Martin Luther King was very
afraid, fearing that if they could go this far what would stop them
from going even further, even killing him?
In his recent autobiography, "An
Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of
America," Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther
King's aides, charged that:
"there was an element of conspiracy
and a degree of involvement by some segment of the U.S. government"
in King's assassination. He goes on to argue that President Johnson's
"well-known anger over King's criticisms of the war in Vietnam
could have given some elements within his government a sense that
the death of Martin Luther King would not be unacceptable to the
Despite Young's suspicions, we still
don't have real proof that the FBI was part of the conspiracy to
kill Dr. King. If they weren't involved the conspiracy, they did
not fully protect King from the growing White racist conspiracy
in the late 1960s that finally killed King. Having bugged his phones
and intercepted his mail, the FBI must have known about the growing
threats to King's life, but they didn't do anything about them.
The very fact that a prominent American such as former U.N. ambassador
Andrew Young could charge the government with being involved in
a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King is a real measure of how
much faith American's lost in their government as a result of its
violations of the basic rights of its citizens during the Cold War,
and especially in the 1960s.