By MURPHY BROWNE
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on Thursday, April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
He was in Memphis to lead a march of African-American sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. King had achieved national prominence as a leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the “coloured” section of a Montgomery city bus to a Caucasian man who could not find a seat in the crowded White section.
As the elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which spearheaded the movement to desegregate the Montgomery city public transportation system, he was harassed and terrorized by White residents of Montgomery, Alabama. King was a charismatic civil rights leader whose life and the lives of his family had been threatened repeatedly because of his activism.
Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, similar bus boycotts were organized across the south. Leaders of the MIA and other civil rights activists met in Atlanta on January 10 and 11, 1957, to form a regional organization (The Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration) and co-ordinate protest activities across the South. They issued a document declaring that civil rights were essential to democracy, that segregation must end and that all African-Americans should reject segregation absolutely and non-violently.
The group met in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 14, 1957, and elected King as president. At the first convention in August, 1957, the group adopted its current name, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which, under King’s leadership, was involved in some of the civil rights movement’s most important events. From the March on Washington to the sit-ins, the SCLC attempted to end discrimination and to appeal to the moral conscience of White Americans.
Non-violence was King’s philosophy and the philosophy of the SCLC but it would become increasingly difficult to persuade the younger generation of activists to subscribe to “turning the other cheek” when they were brutalized by White supremacist thugs in uniform as well as by civilian White men and women.
Two organizations founded by disenfranchised African-Americans had grown between the time that King appeared on the national scene in 1955 and the time he was assassinated in 1968. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in 1960 by young people dedicated to non-violent, direct-action tactics. SNCC was founded by mostly university and college students as an extension of the SCLC with a similarly non-violent philosophy, with the older activists from the SCLC in an advisory role.
SNCC led in the establishment of 30 “Freedom Schools” in towns throughout Mississippi. Volunteers taught in the schools and the curriculum included African history and the philosophy of the civil rights movement. During the summer of 1964 over 3,000 students attended these schools, but the success came with a price. Freedom Schools and the homes of local African-Americans involved in the campaign were targets of White mobs. That summer, 30 homes of African-Americans, and 37 churches where African Americans worshipped, were firebombed by the good Christian White people of Mississippi. More than 80 volunteers were beaten by White mobs which included police officers.
The university and college students, some from northern states, became increasingly dissatisfied with the non-violent philosophy as they were repeatedly brutalized and terrorized by White mobs. In May 1966, a new stage in SNCC’s history began with the election, as chairman, of Trinidad-born, Harlem-raised Stokely Carmichael (later to become known as Kwame Toure). Carmichael/Toure moved SNCC away from the previous integrationist philosophy and during the month following his election, publicly expressed SNCC’s new political orientation when he called for “Black Power” while addressing a crowd of 3,000 in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Carmichael/Toure was a charismatic youth leader who, as a field organizer in Lowndes County, Mississippi, had increased the number of registered African-American voters from 70 to 2600.
The position paper that SNCC presented in 1966 entitled “The Basis of Black Power”, spelled out its message of political, economic and legal liberation, rather than integration, for African-Americans and marked a turning point in the civil rights movement: “In the beginning of the movement, we had fallen into a trap whereby we thought that our problems revolved around the right to eat at certain lunch counters or the right to vote, or to organize our communities. We have seen, however, that the problem is much deeper”.
The position paper addressed African-American self determination, including their right to organize without being supervised by White people: “The stereotype has been reinforced that Blacks cannot organize themselves. The White psychology that Blacks have to be watched, also reinforces this stereotype. Blacks, in fact, feel intimidated by the presence of Whites, because of their knowledge of the power that Whites have over their lives.
“One White person can come into a meeting of Black people and change the complexion of that meeting, whereas one Black person would not change the complexion of that meeting unless he was an obvious Uncle Tom. People would immediately start talking about ‘brotherhood’, ‘love’, etc.; race would not be discussed”.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the other organization that helped to change the civil rights movement. Founded in October, 1966, in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the name was later shortened to the Black Panther Party (BPP.) Unlike King’s advocacy of non-violent resistance, the BPP believed in arming for self-defense against police brutality.
The BPP was community oriented, organizing a Free Breakfast for School Children Program, free medical clinics, free clothing drives and liberation schools to counter-balance the Eurocentric education of the public schools. The BPP advocated armed self defense; teaching all their members the use and necessity of armed self defense, not only of themselves but for the entire African-American community.
Not surprisingly, SNCC and the BPP were targets of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) as part of a concerted effort at all levels of government to crush what they viewed as African-American militancy. With a government campaign of terrorism against the members of the two organizations, the movement was destroyed.
The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, was expert at destroying the lives of Africans they viewed as radical; beginning with the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and included King.
It has been argued over the years (even by members of King’s family) that King’s assassination was a result of government conspiracy, specifically the FBI. With all the major players gone, we may never know who assassinated King on April 4, 1968.