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Fear of A Black Messiah: the FBI's Campaign to Delegitimate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1962-1968

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From 1962-1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of an FBI surveillance campaign, led by then-director, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI claimed that this campaign was necessary, to

From 1962-1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of an FBI surveillance campaign, led by then-director, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI claimed that this campaign was necessary, to expose the communist influence within the civil rights movement, but this was a lie. I argue that, instead, the purpose of the surveillance was so that the Bureau could attempt to ruin Dr. King's reputation by collecting incriminating evidence about his personal life. I believe that the Bureau embarked on this campaign against Dr. King in order to maintain the United States' white supremacist racial hierarchy by neutralizing a prominent black activist. Further, I believe that today, there is the potential for the FBI to take. In order to argue this, I analyze different aspects of the Bureau's campaign against Dr. King. First, I discuss Hoover's fascination with and hatred of Dr. King. Throughout the six years this thesis focuses on, Hoover repeatedly took actions against King that went far beyond what was necessary or appropriate for an anti-Communism campaign. I argue that this is because Hoover's true goal was to damage King's reputation as much as possible, not discover if he was a communist. Second, I examine the Bureau's surveillance of Stanley Levison, one of King's closest aides. Levison was, for a time, a suspected communist. This gave the Bureau's campaign some initial legitimacy, and eventually led to the Bureau's official spy campaign against Dr. King. Next, I analyze the FBI's use of technological surveillance methods against King. The Bureau's patterns of microphone and wiretap use in their campaign against King further suggest that the intent of such actions was merely to gather information to injure King's reputation with the public. Fourth, I discuss the Bureau's use of informants to keep tabs on King's actions and plan. More specifically, I discuss Ernest Columbus Withers, a black photographer who served as an FBI informant. Finally, I argue that there is potential for the FBI to take similar actions against today's black activists. To make this point, I analyze the wording of an FBI memo made public last year. In this memo, the FBI warns of a domestic terror threat known as "Black Identity Extremists." I argue that the FBI's definition of these extremists is purposely vague, and could feasibly be applied to any black activist. Because of this, I believe there is potential for modern activists to be subjected to the same kind of harassment Dr. King endured in the 1960's. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and this thesis serves as a reminder that there are forces who would stifle the First Amendment to maintain the status quo.

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  • 2018-12