From the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to his assassnation in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a transformative figure in the Civil Rights Movement. His journey, along with civil rights activists throughout the United States, is a testament to the power of radical social change and the determination of individuals dedicated to the cause of equality. His philosophy of nonviolent protest provided the blueprint that shaped the movement for almost 2 decades.
Despite the eventual success of the movement, King and hundreds of protestors drew the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. J. Edgar Hoover, the first appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), spied on King regularly using a variety of surveillance technologies and programs with the sole purpose of delegitimizing and imprisoning the leaders of the movement. This activity raises several concerns pertaining to the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s actions in spying on American citizens. The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to privacy and freedom from government tyranny, yet the government appeared to usurp the rights of King and other civil rights leaders on a regular basis.
This entry offers a brief overview of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and an examination of the U.S. government and the FBI’s response to King’s leadership of the movement. In relationship to the surveillance programs and technology used to spy on King, two questions are often raised: Was the Civil Rights Movement threatening to the safety and security of the country at large? Or did Hoover and the FBI have a vendetta against King?
The Civil Rights Movement was a period in U.S. history when black people marched to gain legal and federal recognition of several constitutional rights gained in the aftermath of the Civil War era (1865). For example, The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment gave former slaves the right to citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave black males the right to vote. Many whites resisted these changes, and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan swept the southern countryside spreading fear and terror within the black population and among white sympathizers. Blacks fled the South and migrated to the northern states hoping for freedom and the ability to live free of violence. Not much changed, however, as they soon discovered a world of racism and discrimination. The North was divided along color lines, with institutions of racism imposing strict social divisions between blacks and whites.
Laws validating an ideology of “separate but equal” restricted access to education and the labor market. Social memberships and interpersonal relationships between blacks and whites were forbidden. Blacks and whites were also forbidden from eating side by side in restaurants or sharing bathrooms and water fountains. Movie theaters were segregated, with blacks relegated to one section of the theater and whites to another. In short, racial discrimination throughout the North and South negated the guarantees of the Constitution and set the stage for a confrontation over the nature of freedom and equality in the United States.
The fight over school integration, for example, started in the spring of 1951 after several student groups at Moton High School in Virginia held protests against the overcrowded classrooms and the lack of educational facilities. The NAACP joined the protest and filed several cases challenging the Board of Education, codified under Brown v. Board of Education (1954) . The plaintiffs charged that the education of black children in separate (i.e., segregated) schools was unconstitutional. NAACP attorneys argued to the Court that black children were the victims of a form of school segregation that negatively affected their future. The Court handed down its decision in May 1954. The decision ordered the phasing out of school segregation; however, it did not fully overturn the doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, which was still effective due to an additional ruling in favor of segregation in transportation. Brown v. Board of Education did, however, advance a framework for weakening this section of the separate but equal doctrine.
In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger. The separate but equal doctrine relegated black people to ride in the back of the bus despite the fact that fares were the same for both blacks and whites. Several men of color offered their own seats; however, Parks refused on principle. She was arrested, tried, and convicted of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. As news of the event became widespread, black leaders developed a strategy to force the city to change course and to allow equal treatment of blacks on Montgomery, Alabama, buses. As expected, politicians and business leaders in Montgomery refused to negotiate or recognize the validity of the requested changes in racial policy. As a result, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was born.
King and 50 black leaders joined the boycott and devised a plan to force the city leaders to respond to the demands of the black community. King was an up-and-coming Baptist minister at the time and the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. His involvement with the boycott is significant because of his philosophy of nonviolent protest, which stood in direct contrast to the campaign of hate, violence, and terror organized by the Ku Klux Klan. The boycott attracted approximately 50,000 protesters, who marched in opposition to the separate but equal doctrine. Men, women, and children refused to ride the buses and walked for miles to get to their jobs and schools. Those with automobiles formed rideshare programs and provided transportation for those who found it difficult to walk long distances. The boycott went on for 381 days and was largely effective because it struck at the heart of the Montgomery business community. The lack of regular bus riders caused a rapid decline in revenue, which gave the city leaders pause to rethink their actions. As a result, a federal court ordered the end of segregation on Montgomery buses in November 1956.
The situation on that day escalated significantly as crowds of angry white southerners formed a gauntlet on the path to the school entryway. Some in the crowd spat at the nine black students, making it physically difficult for them to make their way through the crowd to the door. In spite of the daily presence of federal troops, the Little Rock Nine were physically attacked and harassed by white students. One of the nine, Minnijean Brown, was suspended for retaliating against a white female who harassed her constantly. Brown was eventually expelled for verbally abusing another white student. Of the nine, Ernest Green was the only student to graduate from Little Rock High. After a year of constant turmoil (1957–1958), the city of Little Rock closed down its entire school system, which established a pattern of resistance adopted by school districts across the South.
As the decade of the 1950s drew to a close, and with several successes of the Civil Rights Movement, King, along with Ralph Abernathy and other leaders, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The conference was designed to access the moral authority and organizing power of black churches throughout the North and South. What was significant about this strategy was that it gave King an opportunity to establish a strong national base of operation, which drew widespread notice from the federal government. This organization became the base from which the fight for voting rights gained strength. The SCLC, for example, organized more than 20 voting drives in key southern cities, all of which had the effect of increasing voter registration by blacks.
Around the same period (1958–1960), the NAACP Youth Council held a series of student sit-ins around the South, which served the purpose of integrating lunch counters, restaurants, parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public facilities. The sit-ins drew great attention nationally as the students employed King’s model of nonviolent protest. They were encouraged to dress professionally, present themselves with quiet dignity, and occupy as much space as possible. Nonetheless, the participants were often subjected to violence by the local police and state troopers, who used brutal force to “escort” (i.e., remove) demonstrators from the lunch counters. Despite the acts of overt violence by law enforcement officials, the nonviolent strategy was successful in ending the segregation of lunch counters and restaurants in 27 southern cities. The model of nonviolent protest was also adopted in 1960 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina.
The then president John F. Kennedy’s administration furthered the cause of civil rights in their support of the march on Washington organized by A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Concerned that the march would negatively affect pending civil rights legislation, Kennedy enlisted church leaders and the United Auto Workers to assist with the planning and mobilization of activists and laypersons around the country. The march was held on August 28, 1963, and represented a collaborative effort between several civil rights organizations, the labor movement, liberal activists, and citizens. The goals of the march were diverse, including the institutionalization of civil rights law, a federal works program, fair employment and housing, voting rights and equal education, and, importantly, the passage of the civil rights law proposed by the Kennedy administration.
Following the march, King and a group of civil rights leaders met with Kennedy in Washington to discuss the civil rights bill, which had little chance of becoming law. While there was some support from northern congressmen and senators of both parties (Democratic and Republican), the bill was continuously blocked by threats of filibusters by southern senators. Hopes for its passage grew even dimmer in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
The bill was revived, however, after vice president Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president following Kennedy’s death. After 54 days of filibuster from the floor of the Senate, the bill was passed. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was seen as the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement because it gave rise to a sweeping ban on discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex and national origin” as well as in employment practices and public accommodations. The bill also gave the U.S. attorney general the authority to file lawsuits against entities and parties that denied these rights; all discriminatory laws at the local and state levels were nullified as well.
Following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King continued to increase his visibility as a champion for civil rights for blacks in America. Many people across America began to question the legitimacy of the Jim Crow laws and the long-held ideology of discrimination against black citizens. King became internationally renowned, particularly when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964, becoming the youngest man, at 35 years, to be honored with the prize.
As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King also drew the attention of local and federal law enforcement agencies soon after he joined the movement. Although the government, and the FBI in particular, claimed at the time that the surveillance was conducted as a normal function of the agency, these policies and practices raised concerns pertaining to the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s actions in spying on American citizens.
The FBI was originally established in 1909 to investigate federal crimes; however, its role expanded in the 1930s to researching and investigating “subversives,” people and groups who threatened the safety and security of the United States. Congress also passed a series of laws increasing the number and types of crimes falling under federal jurisdiction, giving the FBI the power to expand its operation into the area of spying and advanced surveillance capabilities. The FBI increased its spying capabilities using advanced technology as the United States was drawn into World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During this period the FBI and other government agencies were deeply concerned with matters of national security, particularly as spying increased around the globe. The United States was under threat of attack by subversive agents of the Axis powers, which declared themselves enemies of the U.S. government. Therefore, the overall mission of the FBI, although defined as an agency dedicated to the safety and defense of the United States, was irrevocably transformed. Under the direction of Hoover, the mission of the FBI was advanced to include a long-term investigation into the Civil Rights Movement.
Documents obtained from the FBI’s files on King indicate that Hoover was personally hostile to King. Records indicate that the FBI was heavily engaged in covert operations against King and the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960s. It was purported that King was a communist, a communist sympathizer, or ideologically influenced by communism. Therefore, the FBI monitored King under the Racial Matters Program, which focused on individuals and organizations involved in racial politics. Whether or not King and the leaders of the movement were subversives has been questioned; however, Hoover appeared to be certain that King was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.
This obvious breach of privacy called into question King’s right to constitutional protections under the law and demonstrated the abject willingness of the FBI, and Hoover in particular, to circumvent these rights. While the intrusion on King’s rights as a private, albeit public, figure can be explained in the best interest of national security, it appears more as an attempt to delegitimize King as the leader of a significant social movement. Hoover’s vendetta against King did not stop there, as he also approved investigations into the private activities of other prominent civil rights leaders.
In August 1967, for example, the FBI created the Counter Intelligence Program to spy on King and a cadre of black nationalist groups. The firebrand activist Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and its leader Huey Newton, as well as leaders of the well-established SCLC were also targeted under this program. Senior agents of the FBI believed that King, in particular, would become a “messiah” with the power to unify black nationalists around the country. This perceived messianic power supposedly possessed by King points to the fear experienced by members of the FBI and the U.S. government of a man who could challenge the status quo and bring about social change in American society. The fact is that King had a seismic impact on race relations in America. The promises of the U.S. Constitution and the rights guaranteed under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were to be finally realized for black Americans. Perhaps government officials thought it was necessary to halt the progress of the Civil Rights Movement and therefore developed programs and methods as a means to accomplish their desired goals.
While the FBI continued the surveillance program against the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In the days leading up to the assassination, he was engaged in planning another march on Washington in an effort to revive the movement, which had begun to lag, and to bring attention to several issues, including the overrepresentation of young black men serving in the Vietnam War. In fact, he and President Johnson, who championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were in great disagreement over the efficacy of the war.
On April 3, in what some historians call a prophetic statement, it appears that he told supporters that he had seen his fate: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The next day, as he was standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. The killer, James Earl Ray, was apprehended after a 2-month investigation that spanned the nation and the world at large. Ironically, the same government agency (FBI) that for two decades had wiretapped King’s phones, bugged his house, and kept him under constant surveillance was instrumental in launching the investigation that captured his killer.
Tracy F. Tolbert
See also Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ; Civil Disobedience ; Civil Liberties ; Electronic Surveillance ; Federal Bureau of Investigation ; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ; Privacy ; Segregation, Residential ; Surveillance During the Cold War ; U.S. Constitution
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Barnes, Catherine A.Journey From Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983.
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Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
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Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
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Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987.