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Coretta Scott King a Communist? There’s a History Here
The Washington Post’s newly hired and fired blogger Ben Domenech, a paleo-conservative brought on to "balance" the paper’s "liberal" image, is being hammered on many fronts. He was given the boot on allegations of plagiarism. But the only charge he’s addressed — and apologized for — is his bizarre claim the recently deceased Coretta Scott King was a "communist." Here’s Domenech’s equivocating apology yesterday:
"Some people have taken issue with an old two-line comment of mine on RedState.com where I referred to Coretta Scott King as a Communist on the day after her funeral. Coretta Scott King was many things, and her most significant contribution was the unflagging support of her husband in his own noble work to bring equality to all Americans.
"She was also a liberal activist on a number of issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion. The thread where my comment appeared discussed President Bush’s attendance at Mrs. King’s funeral, which was criticized by some for its political nature. My comment questioned the president’s decision to attend the funeral after he had phoned in a message to the March for Life, the largest pro-life rally and a significant annual event. Mrs. King participated in many different political causes, some of which involved associations with questionable people, but referring to her as a Communist was a mistake, hyperbole in the context of a larger debate about President Bush’s political priorities. Mea Culpa."
No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either why being upset that Bush isn’t sufficiently "pro-life" is any reason to have a Joe McCarthy moment.
But there’s a history here, one which the WaPo and both sides of the bloggerati missed. Communist hysteria like Domenech’s outburst was one of the critical tools — some historians say the most important — that the Southern power structure and their national allies used to discredit the civil rights struggle and maintain white supremacy.
Days after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech at the August 1963 March on Washington, Herbert Hoover’s FBI went into overdrive to find a way to discredit King, who he saw as a "demagogic."
Realizing that King and the movement were gaining the moral high ground, the FBI desperately turned to two lines of attack to bring King down: exposing him as a philanderer and, most importantly, a communist. After learning that "200 communists" attended the 1963 march — out of 250,000 total — the FBI singled out King in this dispatch:
He stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now . . . as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of Communism the Negro and national security.
It was then that Hoover approved his infamous COMINFIL-COINTELPRO program, which called for intensifying efforts to uncover "Communist influence on the Negro," which included wiretapping and harassment of King and others active in the movement.
The "red menace" and Cold War politics were used at all levels to discredit every measure of racial progress in the South. It was the pretext for Kentucky authorities to charge Carl Braden and recently-deceased Anne Braden with sedition in 1954 for merely selling their house to an African-American couple in segregated Louisville.
The idea that King and the movement had Moscow on speed-dial is, of course, total bunk and laughable to any informed observer (I don’t include Domenech in this category). There were surely members of the left, including communists, who were deeply involved in civil rights, including King’s close friend Stanley Levinson.
But most weren’t communists intent on helping the Soviets: for example, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee that trained Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures — and which the right wing still uses as "proof" of King’s nefarious red ties — was led by home-grown Christian socialists and pacifists. The Kings themselves were never members of any group.
That leads to another key part of this story that most bloggers are missing. If Martin and Coretta King "associated" with communists, it was for the simple reason that leftists were often the first and most dedicated defenders of civil rights. For example, the communist International Defense League was the first group to step forward to defend the "Scottsboro Boys," the nine black teens sentenced to death in trumped-up charges of raping a white woman (even the NAACP wouldn’t take the case).
African Americans in the South did occasionally turn to white socialists and communists for support because liberal and "tolerant" whites often flaked out (read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail," directed at the white liberal clergy). Those further to the left were much more reliable and hard-working allies.
On the other side, civil rights leaders also saw that those who red-baited and whipped up communist hysteria were also those who most bitterly defended white racist rule. When the Red Scare right-wingers forced people to take sides, which do you think was more appealing to African-Americans in the South?
So let’s be clear: Domenech’s comment is more than unhinged howling (although it is that). It’s part of the right’s larger preoccupation with reliving the Cold War, and a larger agenda to resuscitate McCarthyism and validate the Red Scare.
There are two goals at work here. One is to justify today’s crack-down on dissent, from illegal wire-tapping and surveillance of peace groups, to the harassment of "tenured radicals" the right fears are out to brainwash our impressionable youth.
But just as dangerously, it’s also an attempt to re-write our entire history — to cast at victims those who stood for racism, white rule and persecution (McCarthy suffered from a "witch-hunt," says Ann Coulter), and to portray those who stood most nobly for justice and freedom as diabolically un-American.
In other words, to change the very definition of progress in our country.
We need more than a good movie by George Clooney to win this battle.
CHRIS KROMM is Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies,