On April 7, 1968, the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. laid in a coffin at Spelman College’s Sister’s Chapel in Atlanta. King had been assassinated three days earlier on April 4 in Memphis. That weekend, I was one of throngs of people on the Spelman campus paying homage to the great man. Walking toward to coffin at the front of the chapel all you could hear was the sound of footsteps and weeping.
You looked at him through a clear glass cover over the coffin that was constantly being wiped clean by pastors on either side. One of them was Reverend Lawrence Carter, now Dean of the Morehouse University King Chapel. He told me years later that the glass was placed on the coffin because as people walked by their tears fell on King’s exposed body. The pastors wiped away the tears.
King’s leadership role in America paralleled many initiatives and movements for justice throughout the world that faced challenges within the context of the struggle between the East and the West in the Cold War era. After World War II, in fact, anti-colonial movements spread exponentially throughout the world, including in the U.S. that incorporated demands for justice and independence. The reaction against these movements has not been benign.
Prior to his assassination in 1968, King had played what is a universally acknowledged instrumental leadership role in the Civil Rights movement in America. His and others leadership was a challenge to some of the most egregious discriminatory policies in American history, largely centered in the Jim Crow South. Some of the leading campaigns were the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 resulting in a reversal of laws that had prevented integrated seating on public transportation; and the profound 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that swept away the unequal treatment of Black Americans that had been in place since the end of the reconstruction period in the 1800’s after the Civil War.
After all these and other successful initiatives in civil rights, King recognized that if you have the right to vote, to travel, to stay in hotels, to eat in restaurants, and other rights, what good is it if you can’t afford to pay the bill. He wisely decided to shift his focus to economic rights.
This shift of emphasis was the final outrage and the reaction was swift. America’s corporate and government elite would no longer tolerate his leadership. They were obviously not as bothered by his civil rights activities, although all the indications are that there were plans to assassinate him as he marched for voting rights on Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 (Pepper, 2003).
In 1968 King was killed in Memphis while supporting the garbage workers demands against poor treatment, discrimination, and dangerous working conditions. He and others were in Memphis as part of the organizing campaign for the Poor People’s March to Washington to demand a shift in Congress’ budget. Specifically, they wanted the federal dollars devoted to the war in Vietnam transferred to programs that would instead benefit the disadvantaged in America.
The plan was for thousands of the poor throughout the country to camp out in Washington D.C. to then pressure the government for changes in the budget.
Please note also that there were huge profits being made by U.S. corporations during the Vietnam War (Carter, 2003). The speculation of a loss of the federal dollars into the coffers of corporate America was clearly not appreciated.
The FBI surveillance of King throughout his career is now widely known. What is not necessarily acknowledged, however, is the extent of the government surveillance.
And what is also not generally recognized is that his assassination was part of a pattern of American government and corporate elite since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to demean or destroy individuals or movements that challenged the capitalist model. All of this became intensified in the Cold War era after World War II.
Invariably the label “communism” was invoked, particularly after the chilling effect of the McCarthy era anti-communist witch-hunts in the 1950’s as a way to undermine demands for justice. Huge posters across the South labeled King as a communist. In fact, in almost every instance whatever King did that challenged the status quo in the Jim Crow South was labeled as “communist” activities. It had nothing whatsoever to do with membership in the communist party or even his beliefs for that matter. The propagandists paid no attention to that. It was his leadership and influence that concerned them. King was not a member of the Communist Party. He was, however, unsettled by the unjust laws and the exploitation of workers within the context of the capitalist model.
King joins the list, for example, of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo (1961), President John Kennedy in the U.S. (1963), Robert Kennedy in the U.S. (1968), Salvador Allende in Chile (1972), Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador (1980), Pastor Minda Gran in the Philippines (1989), as well as thousands of others too many to list here who, throughout the world, demanded justice or change and were killed.
It is also now speculated and in most cases proven, that all of these leaders above were assassinated with the prompting or support of the FBI or the CIA or U.S. government initiatives. Invariably they were backed by the powerful alliance of corporate and government leaders and/or inclusive of military and surveillance training in the US.
For example, in the early 1980’s retired U.S. General John Singlaub, who was president of the World Anti-Communist League, held a meeting in Singapore with high-ranking officials of the U.S. military to launch an anti-communist campaign in the Philippines. The reason for this campaign was that opposition to the extension of the U.S. Military Bases Agreement in the Philippines was rapidly growing. The U.S. supported Filipino paramilitary groups for this purpose. In fact, while visiting the Philippines the 1980’s, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke publicly admonished the U.S. for this practice.
Lists of respected activists to be targeted for summary execution were developed and implemented. Methodist Pastor Minda Gran was one of those victims. She had been planning a clothing drive for the poor when she and her husband were assassinated in 1989.
I investigated the Gran assassination with pastors from the United Church of Christ of the Philippines. Her coffin and that of her husband were in the living room of her humble home. I saw blood and some of her brain splattered on the wall upstairs where she had been killed. Members of her community were stunned by this assassination and some told me they were going into hiding. As with King, the tears in this rural Filipino community were abundant in response to this loss.
The western capitalist corporate interests and its control of the world’s economic and trade interests have subsequently become entrenched since King was assassinated but his message still resonates. As William Pepper noted in the Epilogue of his book “An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King” (2003):
“Martin King understood as had Ruskin and Gandhi before him that it was not the lack of money that was the problem, but the deprivations associated with a lack of money that denies access to the essentials of a decent life. In the post-Second World War period he saw the rights of people being steadily subordinated to the rights of transnational corporations. In January 1, 1993, 27 years after his death, that inexorable movement was virtually completed.
The framework for the post-1945 economy had largely been worked out by the United States and Britain. It called for the creation of three multilateral institutions – the World Bank, the IMF, and an international trade organization. This last was not related then to the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT), which was established as a body through which multilateral trade agreements were developed and enforced. With the demise of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990’s, however, there were no longer any alternatives or restrictions on the planet to the spread of corporate colonialism….
Martin King’s commitments to social and economic justice went beyond the contemplative intellect into the arena of active life…This transcendent struggle, this exalted commitment, emerged as an all-consuming passion of Martin King. He acted upon it until he drew his last breath.
This is his lasting legacy to us and people everywhere.”
Heather Gray produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the 1980s, Gray worked as the director of the non-violent program for Coretta Scott King at the King Center in Atlanta. This article on anti-communism will be part of a series.
Carter, James M., “War Profiteering from Vietnam to Iraq”, Counterpunch, (2003)
Pepper, William F., “An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King”, Verso (2003)