"Shadows of a hero's death"
- Morning Star (UK)
Thursday 04 April 2013
Shadows of a hero's death
by Peter Frost Printable Email
Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King, widely regarded as the most
important leader of the US civil rights movement, was shot dead.
FBI intelligence chief and deputy director William C Sullivan - termed
the only liberal ever to have risen to high rank in the FBI - led the
investigation into the assassination. He believed there was a conspiracy
to murder King.
In his autobiography, published after his death, Sullivan wrote: "I was
convinced that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but I doubt if
he acted alone.
"Someone, I feel sure, taught Ray how to get a false Canadian passport,
how to get out of the country and how to travel to Europe, because he
would never have managed it alone."
The FBI would have been happy for the assassin to live out his time in
Britain. Director J Edgar Hoover had repeatedly clashed with Sullivan
over the latter's concern for violations of civil rights laws in the
segregated southern states. Hoover felt the FBI should be worrying about
communists, not racists.
But to the bureau's annoyance the Canadian Mounted Police brought James
Earl Ray home to face justice.
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15 1929.
Both his father and grandfather were preachers who had been actively
involved in the early civil rights movement.
King graduated in 1948 and entered the baptist ministry. At college he
heard a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent civil disobedience
campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India.
King studied the ideas of Gandhi and eventually became convinced that
the same methods could be employed by blacks in the United States.
In December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white
man. Parks was arrested and King and his comrades helped organise
protests against bus segregation.
For 13 months 17,000 black people in Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted
public buses. The boycott ended in victory in December 1956.
King told the story of the successful boycott in his book Stride Toward
Freedom. The book spelt out his views on non-violence and direct action.
It was to have considerable influence on the civil rights movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students inspired
by King's book decided to take action themselves.
They sat-in at the segregated restaurant of their local Woolworth's
store. In the days that followed they were joined by other black
students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant.
They were abused and physically assaulted but following King's
inspiration they did not fight back.
King's non-violent strategy spread to black students all over the deep
south. This included the activities of the Freedom Riders in their
campaign against segregated transport.
Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter
segregation in more than two dozen key southern cities.
Student sit-ins were also successful busting segregation in public
parks, swimming pools, theatres, churches, libraries, museums and
King travelled the country making speeches and inspiring people to
become involved in the civil rights movement. As well as advocating
non-violent student sit-ins, King also urged economic boycotts.
Not all actions were instantly successful. At lunch counters in
Birmingham, Alabama, police turned dogs and fire hoses on the
demonstrators. King and large number of his supporters, including
schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.
King always stressed the importance of registering to vote. He argued
that once all African Americans had the vote they would become an
important political force.
In the deep south considerable pressure was put on blacks not to vote by
organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
King's radical ideas convinced Robert Kennedy that he was closely
associated with the Communist Party USA and he asked Hoover to get the
FBI to dig the dirt on King.
But King was going from strength to strength. He organised the hugely
successful march on Washington for jobs and freedom. As the final
speaker he made his famous "I have a dream" speech and was cheered to
the heavens by a crowd of 400,000.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places
such as theatres, restaurants and hotels illegal.
King now concentrated on achieving a federal voting rights law. In March
1965 he organised a protest march across Alabama from Selma to
Montgomery. The marchers were attacked by state troopers with truncheons
and tear gas.
Although opposed by racist politicians from the deep south, the Voting
Rights Act was passed by huge majority.
On April 3 1967 King made a speech where he outlined the reasons why he
was opposed to the Vietnam war.
Many on the left thought that King should challenge Lyndon B Johnson for
the Democratic Party presidential nomination. King rejected this idea.
But Hoover sent the wiretaps of King's private conversations about him
becoming a candidate to Johnson. Johnson and Hoover decided something
drastic needed to be done.
Hoover believed that "King was an instrument of the Communist Party" and
posed "a serious threat to the security of the country."
In June 1967 Hoover had a meeting to discuss concerns that King might
unseat Johnson. Hoover said he thought a final solution was necessary.
King must be silenced.
King was in Memphis on April 3 the next year to prepare for a
non-violent march as part of an important and long-running industrial
dispute. Previous marches had turned violent due to government and FBI
That night King made his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech.
It ended with the following prophetic words: "Well, I don't know what
will happen now - we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really
doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."
After the tumultuous meeting King retired to the Lorraine Motel. He
stood on the balcony of the motel and a shot rang out. Martin Luther
King Jnr was dead. Hoover's wish had been granted.
Two months later James Earl Ray was arrested in London and extradited to
the United States.
He pleaded guilty to King's murder and was sent to jail for 99 years.
People close to King were convinced that the government was behind the
assassination. King's great comrade Ralph Abernathy claimed that he had
been killed "by someone trained or hired by the FBI and acting under
orders from J Edgar Hoover."
But as the famous Ballad of Joe Hill tells us it "takes more than guns
to kill a man."
Despite that FBI bullet the memory of Martin Luther King Jnr lives on in
the past political victories of black US citizens and his inspiration
will ignite new struggles and new achievements for years to come.