Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

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 Dream" (web);
King "I have a Dream" (web); "FBI Cointelpro: Black
Nationalists" handout

Video: From Montgomery to Memphis
Who Killed Martin Luther King?

Daily Class Web Links

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

Martin Luther King and the Civil
Rights Movement

Martin Luther King's Speeches and Writings

Daily Class Outline

1. King and the Goals of the Civil Rights Movement

2. Major Civil Rights Victories

3. The FBI and Martin Luther King

Daily Class Questions

1. Why did the White mob single out the reporters for attack when they were beating up the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama?

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 unjust law?

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?

Daily Class Notes

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 movement.

King's larger argument is that he and other Black and White Americans can not ignore injustice in Birmingham. He writes:

"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 Americans:

"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 black groups.

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 that."

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 President."

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.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 12 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/king.htm
    Number of Visitors to this site:  37499                   by Chris H. Lewis, Ph.D.