This week marked 90 years since the birth of one the most famous figureheads of the civil rights movement; Dr Martin Luther King, a southern baptist who rallied against the United States’ draconian racially segregated society. As a radical preacher who rallied against inequality, housing crises, poverty and the Vietnam War, King was an outcast in the political scene. Now he has become a staple of modern America. Streets are named after him, holidays are celebrated and his image has been re-purposed to that of an American hero. Before his martyrdom, this was not the case.
In a 1966 poll, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavourable opinion of King. By 1987, almost 75 percent of Americans had a favourable rating of King. What is the reason behind this rapid turnaround? The answer is his murder at the hands of a white supremacist combined with his mostly passive from of resistance. This alleged passivity is what makes him the go-to radical icon for the American establishment. This is a whitewash, it defangs Kings movement which included many militant blacks willing to take on white supremacy head on. King himself was especially critical of whites and the role they played in upholding white supremacy stating “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.”
Yet despite this, on Twitter both the CIA and the FBI wrote in remembrance of the civil rights leader. The hypocrisy is astounding. King was a victim to the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a programme that targeted and sought to destroy radical groups in the United States. Believing King to be a communist, the FBI reportedly sent him a letter which King interpreted as a suggestion to kill himself.
King is not the only victim of the US governments targeting and later whitewashing. Perhaps even more mind-boggling, the US’s canonisation of Malcolm X is remarkable considering X’s militant black separatist and Islamic virtues. The US government eventually awarded X a postage stamp, despite similarly surveilling X and sowing discontent within the Nation of Islam which would eventually lead to his assassination.
The case of the Black Panthers is another one of bewilderment. In her performance at the Super Bowl, Beyonce paid a homage to the Black Panthers on the world stage for all to see. What is probably forgotten is that the Panthers were an armed group of Marxist-Leninist’s who supported the DPRK. Any sort of homage to them at Americas premier sporting event is startling to say the least. Namely also due to fact that the Panthers were viciously targeted by COINTELPRO. In perhaps the most heinous example, the young 21 year old chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party Fred Hampton was murdered by armed police who shot over a hundred rounds into his room whilst he slept. He was later found to have been shot twice in the head at point blank range in a clear act of state murder. His corpse was then unceremoniously dragged out of the apartment whilst white officers smiled.
The FBI’s lack of self awareness in the tweet mentioned earlier is not a mistake. The whitewashing of the Black Power movement after its destruction is a deliberate act to fit in with the US establishments narrative of history. In moments like this, it is important to remember those acts and victims of establishment white supremacy which are forgotten. On this point, this year also marks the 40th anniversary since the Greensboro massacre where multiple black Maoist workers were shot at and killed by Klansmen and Neo-Nazis with police collusion.
When the establishment seeks to re-purpose the message of King, X and the Panthers, it must be reminded of its role in the destruction of the Black Power movement and be held to full account for the deaths of its protagonists. Only then can the white supremacy that King, X and the Panthers rallied against start to be successfully combated.