From Monori, I'm Lindsey Graham, and this is American Skin. Today, we wrap up our series on the feds versus the activists. By the mid 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. had faced his fair share of threats. The civil rights leader had been attacked by an angry mob stabbed in the chest and nearly died. His home was bombed while his wife and child were inside it. In many ways, those attacks paled in comparison to the threat the FBI had become.
King learned that the FBI was investigating him on suspicions that he was associating with communists. But King did not know. He was also the subject of a secret FBI program known as COINTELPRO. This campaign was used to destroy civil rights leaders through spying, harassment and psychological warfare. COINTELPRO was overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful FBI director who deeply distrusted King under Hoover's leadership, the bureau trying to destroy the influential civil rights leader. The FBI began by spying on King, but soon resorted to blackmailing him, threatening to share a recording of him cheating on his wife.
The bureau suggested that the only way he could avoid embarrassment was to kill himself. King refused to yield and continued his activism until his assassination in 1968. My guest today is Clayborne Carson. He's both studied and witnessed the way the U.S. government has erected barriers to civil rights activism from the March on Washington to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Carson is the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and the author of the book, Malcolm X The FBI File.
I'll speak with him about the FBI's investigations of Dr. King and Malcolm X and how those events echo what's happening now between law enforcement and activists.
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Dr. Carson, welcome to American Scandal. Good to be here with you. Second class citizenship, disenfranchisement, intimidation, violence, these were all regular parts of the black American experience since the end of the civil war, entrenched and normalized in American culture and unfortunately codified into law for close to a century when the civil rights movement, as we know it, began. What do you think was special about the post-World War Two era that made this movement possible?
Well, I think the war itself was one of the things that made it possible for black soldiers like my father, who fought in World War Two, came back with a new attitude about not wanting to accept the world as it was before, especially in the United States, the Jim Crow system. I think there was an expectation that things would be better and a willingness to fight to realize those expectations.
And what were those expectations? What did what did the movement seek?
Well, I think that just equal treatment, you know, both within the military, that got a somewhat better treatment, but certainly somewhat more opportunities. But after the war, I think that there was a sense of. We're not willing to accept second class citizenship anymore, and I think that there was a desire to build upon the achievements of before time because, you know, during that period, the United States had needed black Americans with the necessary for the war effort.
And I think that was true throughout the world. I mean, during the Second World War, Britain needed its colonies. France needed its colonies, not just African-Americans, but colonized people fought on the side of the allies. And I think that was one of the reasons why almost immediately, within a few years after the end of the war, India gained its independence and the colonized people of the world began to move forward. And that was reflected in the United States.
In fact, I think we were inspired by what Gandhi achieved in India and what the anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia were representing for us.
So the fight for freedom abroad then turned into grand disappointment. And this disappointment, I suppose, spawned the movement and this movement spawned some leaders.
What were some of the actions that leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X called for the U.S. government to take specifically? I mean, equality is a very broad measure and it can't happen overnight.
Well, after the war, there were obviously a number of leaders before King and Malcolm who began to surface the NAACP, the largest organization for black civil rights, began to assert itself more and gained the Brown versus Board of Education decision. So people like Thurgood Marshall and other leaders of the NAACP were pushing forward and someone like Martin Luther King began to push on the local level, particularly after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. So I think that all of these evidence, the potential for progress inspired people, but also the the incidents that occurred after the war of soldiers in uniform being harassed and beaten and sometimes killed when they came back home and and found that they were not respected.
And, you know, the killing of Emmett Till in 1955 was a major event. There were just a number of signs that despite the war, the Jim Crow South wanted to put black people back into the same position as before the war, and that just wasn't acceptable. So there was a groundswell of desire to expand the movement. So I think that that was that was the start of it. And and, of course, with the Montgomery bus boycott, you know, it reached a new stage because there was a movement that was started at the grassroots level and the boycott that that was sustained for three hundred eighty one days over a over a year of not riding the buses.
And Martin Luther King was among those who were arrested during the boycott movement, along with other leaders. And despite this harassment, despite imprisonment, the movement went on. And I think it served as an inspiration to a whole generation of leaders of that age, but also younger people like myself. This was a sign that if black people stuck together and acted militantly, they could achieve a great victory as as they did at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott.
So there was definite progress, a groundswell at the local level and then slow progress in the courts and in Congress at the federal level, from Brown v. Board in 2004 to the Civil Rights Act a decade later. But there were other branches of the federal government that had a very different response to civil rights activism. What was the FBI's attitude toward the civil rights movement? Has it gained momentum through these years?
Well, I think, again, you could trace that back before or Hoover and the FBI had been hostile to any form of black militancy going back to the time he came into the government and the years after World War One, when the targets were immigrant radicals. And one of the targets was Marcus Garvey, one of the most successful black leaders of that era. And J. Edgar Hoover developed a strategy for dealing with any kind of black militancy, and that is labeling it as communist inspired or the result of alien foreign and.
Lawrence is certainly dangerous and targeted Marcus Garvey and actually forced him into exile, and he was one of the most successful leaders of the 1920s. But for Jacob Hoover, that was that was a success and that was the strategy that he used going forward out of whenever there was there were signs of black militancy begin to investigate it, labelled it as subversive. And this was also supported by people in Congress, the House un-American Activities Committee, and all of this was really a way of making black assertiveness and militancy something that was dangerous, something that had to be suppressed.
And so you see that as a consistent pattern.
Do you have any indication of where his suspicion and hostility toward civil rights leaders and many other subversive groups came from?
Yeah, I mean, it was it was racist. It was saying, you know, you didn't need to posit the influence of communists and subversives and, you know, foreign ideas to explain why black people were dissatisfied and wanted to fight for a better, better life. And yet that was the pattern that that was the pattern starting then and to some degree still today. I mean, even after the end of the Cold War, there's that tendency to see militancy as something that just couldn't come from black people's dissatisfaction with injustice.
It had to be somehow influenced by nefarious sources that had to be suppressed. So I think that that tendency was was there from the beginning. I think it was best represented by J. Edgar Hoover because he was the most effective at it. That's how he built his power base by presenting to Americans, I am protecting you against danger, the danger of subversion, and please give me more money to do it. And so that that became his strategy for remaining a powerful person for decades.
One place Hoover spent that money was a secret program called COINTELPRO. What was the initial purpose of that program? The initial purpose? It was focused on the Communist Party. He was among the first to see that during the Cold War. One of the ways in which he could build more influence and more power was to emphasize the danger of communist subversion within the United States. It wasn't simply an external threat, it was an internal threat, and that among the aspects of that threat was racial militancy, black militancy.
And, you know, that's things that we wouldn't even consider militancy today. You know, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott, even at that early stage when it was simply a movement by black people saying we're not going to ride the buses in Montgomery. And he's already labeling it as potentially dangerous movement led by this guy, Martin Luther King. You know, certainly Martin Luther King would not have recognized that he would be investigated by the FBI in 1955 when he was just a Baptist minister who had been selected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association.
But as King developed into the most prominent black leader of his generation, Hoover became more and more concerned about him, particularly because he attracted support from people with leftist backgrounds. And this was true from the very beginning of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That impulse to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came from Stanley Levison, who was a white lawyer who befriended King and became one of his main advisers and fundraisers. And it happened that Stanley Levison was at had been a member of the Communist Party.
Now, that's surprising in the sense that if you are of a certain age and you supported black equality, what party would you have been influenced by? Not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party of that era. Both of these parties, the Democratic Party was basically run by Southerners. It was segregated. Black people did not participate in the party conventions of the Democratic Party during the 20s and into the 30s, and it began to change under Roosevelt. And similarly, the Republican Party did not really welcome black members.
Even that was the party of Lincoln, and it had been black Republicans since the beginning of the party. But by the 1920s, they had decided that having blacks and prominent positions would harm the party in terms of getting white support. So in both cases, like people who are, I guess, what you would call militant or very assertive about getting rights, often were influenced by communist movements, which themselves wanted to build support among black people. And that's what happened during the nineteen.
30S and 40s, so if you wanted to be part of the civil rights Congress or, you know, a number of other organizations, it was very likely that you were working together with people who had communist backgrounds. Hoover had kind of an infectious disease notion about communism that once you're infected with it, you always have it. And like a virus, that you can spread it to other people that you influence. So that was true for a number of people around King who had been once affiliated with with communist movements, have broken away from them and had decided for various reasons that the Communist Party was not very effective, not very useful in terms of gaining black civil rights.
But nonetheless, that background that according to the virus theory, once you have it, you could never get rid of it. You could never renounce it. And then anyone you affiliated with, anyone who you spend time with or advise is also infected with.
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What were some differences in how the FBI handled each of these two civil rights leaders?
Well, ironically, it was with Malcolm X. This is how happens much later. I mean, I I wrote a book, Malcolm X, the FBI file, and and looking through the FBI files, that the FBI was not really that interested in the Nation of Islam. They saw it as a kind of a religious cult. There had been some history of black people involved and religious organizations that they took somewhat of an interest in. There really isn't very much on the FBI files about Malcolm until about 60 to 63 as he begins to see that he wants to play a leadership role in the expanding civil rights struggle that gains him a lot more attention.
And then when he travels abroad and begins to develop his own black nationalist orientation, you know, then then, of course, there's a lot of attention from the CIA, the FBI and other organizations because they see him as a potential leader of a massive black struggle and someone who would be representing a greater militancy than Martin Luther King. So that's when they really stepped up their attention using surveillance, tapping his phone, you know, things like that. But again, that was more later in the struggle.
They were much more concerned until then about Martin Luther King, quite frankly, because Martin Luther King had much more of a following. He was seen as the main black leader of his time. So, of course, they're going to devote more attention to him, particularly when they know that that Stanley Levison is one of his advisors, that Bayard Rustin had been one of his advisers. And still, Bayard Rustin is the organizer of the March on Washington.
And, you know, other people who similarly had communist or socialist affiliations in the past and the fact that these people were close to King, you know, that set off alarm bells from 1962 on King's idea was I don't really care a lot about what you did in the past, as long as I see you as being dedicated to the struggle that we are in. So I think that King and I think most people in who are civil rights activists kind of had that attitude that, you know, the Cold War was less important to him than the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
And by this time, by the way, it's not just the Communist Party, but all the organizations that had established over time or at least influenced over time. So I think they were more than two hundred organizations on the FBI's list of subversive groups. So if you had an affiliation with any one of those 200 groups and it wouldn't matter whether you still had an affiliation, it was, again, kind of this infectious disease model, you know, that once you had been infected, then you were dangerous and you would remain dangerous, even even if you had made a point of breaking with one of these groups.
You mentioned Bonard Rustin's part in organizing the march on Washington. You were a part of that event at the time. How are you involved in civil rights activism? At that time?
I was 19 years old and this was you know, I'd heard about the Freedom Riders and the sit ins of 1960. And and I was inspired by the young people, my my age, who are taking leading roles. And and I remember going, you know, I come to college and I went to a meeting of the National Student Association and I met Stokely Carmichael, who was representing Howard University at that time. And so this is right before the march on Washington.
And I wanted to be like them. You and I wanted to be like Stokely Carmichael. I wanted to be like Bob Moses, who I've met later. So this was my chance to take part in a I see two hundred thousand people, probably more people than well, definitely more people than I had seen in my entire life. I mean, you mentioned Bayard Rustin, who was the main organizer, and I think this was something that bothered J.
Edgar Hoover. And to some degree, I think it was kind of a Philip Randolph as a labor leader. Rustin had been kind of his protege during the 1940s. So he was the one who came up with the idea of March. It wasn't Martin Luther King. And he wanted Bayard Rustin because he was the best organizer in the country and 20 some years of experience behind him. So he wanted to have someone like that. And in fact, during the 1940s, he, Philip Randolph, had proposed a march on Washington as a way of pushing Franklin Roosevelt to and discrimination in the in the war industries, black people being involved as soldiers with a lot of opportunities opened up because of the need for workers.
So World War Two was a time of many gains in the black community in terms of opportunity.
Well, speaking of 20 years of experience, it was 20 some years from the march in Washington that in 1985 you were approached by Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's widow. She asked you to organize and edit her late husband's work. What was that call like? Well, first of all, I was surprised. I had written a book about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And part of my purpose in writing the book was to make the point that the movement would have happened even if King had never been born.
You know, because the people who I worked with during that time and not the people I admired, they admired King, but they were not followers of Martin Luther King. They they were blazing their own path. They thought of themselves as in the vanguard of the struggle. And the king was in some ways following them. They were the ones who initiated the sit ins in 1960. They were the ones who initiated and took part in the Freedom Rides of 1961.
Martin Luther King played no role. He was more a follower than a leader during that period. I wanted to emphasize that, that it was young people younger than Martin Luther King who was young himself, but a new generation that I identified well. So when Coretta called, I was surprised that interested you know, you don't get a call like that every day. And, you know, I it wasn't that I disliked King. I thought that he was a wonderful person and I admired him.
And so ultimately, it was it was a matter of why wouldn't I want to edit the papers of Martin Luther King? Why why not? You know, I looked at the movement from one side, from the bottom up. Why not look at it from the top down? I don't have any regrets about that decision.
You mentioned looking at the movement from the bottom up because you were probably part of that, the base of the pyramid there. What were your personal opinions of MLK? Were you a follower and admirer or suspicious? Were you on the vanguard?
I did think see him as someone who was following us rather than, you know, those of us following him. You know, I think all of us admired Martin Luther King. He was had many, many admirable qualities, among them being the most articulate person I think I've ever seen. So I think that he played a role that all of us recognize was important. You know, one of the things about Martin Luther King is that when he came to a place, you know, Snick had been working in Albany, when he came to Albany, attention came with him.
Press came within. Concern of the federal government came with him because all of them recognized that he was the central figure in this movement. And so it wasn't that we were fighting against King, it was more just that we felt maybe he was a little bit too cautious and and maybe needed a stimulus to make him less cautious. So we were always seeing ourselves as pushing him, you know, one of the things about my activism was mostly in Los Angeles and the group I worked with, the Nonviolent Action Committee, was really modeled on SNECK.
It was it was modeled on that kind of militancy where you're using civil disobedience as a way of making gains. And we saw ourselves as a vanguard in the sense of we were looking at urban issues. The movement was not just the South, but many of the problems that black people faced were in the north as well as the south. There were ghettos and in the north there were discrimination in housing and employment. So we took on those problems and felt that we were the vanguard in terms of doing that.
And that when King came to Los Angeles, after what we call the Watts rebellion, he was following us. We weren't following. We were already there. And so when he finally made the decision that, yes, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he understood. Yes, the this is a national problem. That's when he moved to Chicago and began to work on those kinds of issues that those of us who were in Los Angeles had been working on for a number of years.
So to take up those issues, he was really dealing with issues that are still with us today. And that's why he wrote his last book, Where Do We Go from Here? After the passage of civil rights legislation, he was saying now that we have a Voting Rights Act, now that we have a civil rights act, or do we go from here, how do we deal with these festering issues of poverty, segregation, all of the inferior schooling, all of these inequities in American society, and how do we address them?
And he's saying we still need to we still need to decide that.
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We'll check out musicians who are trying to save an indigenous language in Lima. What happens to the tourism paradise? Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island when people stop showing up. And take a look at what it means to start a black utopia. Check out Pingrup wherever you listen. Obviously, there's a wave of activism that's happening right now. I was wondering if there are any parallels between COINTELPRO and the FBI then and perhaps how the federal government and local government authorities are reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement today?
Yeah, I think one of the things that has strengthened the Black Lives Matter movement is that we're gradually getting over the Cold War. So calling something communistic or socialistic doesn't have the same bite that it still is a way of putting something down. But it doesn't call upon government agencies to do what they did with the counterintelligence program that is disrupt and destroy these organizations. Instead, it's more of a political issue. I mean, I think there's still that sense of investigating potential sources of disorder and citizen and maybe the FBI should be doing that.
You know, that's not you know, there is always a potential that any kind of demonstrations can get out of hand. But I think the kind of undercover surveillance, you know, what became known during the 60s is dirty tricks, you know, trying to disrupt and destroy people and organizations. You know, I don't think that that's happening now. Maybe I'm maybe I'm naive. One of the things that's probably true is that there's a recognition that both groups on the left and groups on the right can both be disruptive and dangerous.
And it doesn't do anyone any good to see the source of that as some kind of an alien threat. America is you know, we're a country that had a civil war. We're a country that has a history of violence. And I think what we see now is that that's been brought out into the open. We can assume that because we're all Americans, we we all agree about certain basic things. We might we see them through different lenses. And the potential for pulling the country apart is is always there.
You mentioned that the Cold War is over and the label communist has lost its sting, but maybe it has been replaced with a new one, just extremist.
Well, you know, I think that there's always a sense of trying to put a label on what are what are the threats and extremists. You know, that's that's another label. Does it clarify? I think to a certain degree, I would say the defining issue that should be addressed is violence prone, you know, is a group willing to use violence to achieve its ends. And and that that's the concern of the FBI or any other police agency.
Yeah. You have to be aware of someone's saying, yeah, my my cause is so precious to me that I will kill people or destroy property and do a number of other illegal activities then. Yeah, that's why that's why we have police. I think that when it gets dangerous is when those labels are applied to people who are not dangerous, not violence prone. And I think that often happens that we don't we're still kind of uncomfortable as a society with the notion of civil disobedience, of protest, even though that's our First Amendment.
The right to protest is ingrained in American history. That's that's why we are an independent nation today. So I think that, you know, trying to draw that line is something that is necessary. Yeah, we're going to deal effectively and listen to legitimate grievances without labeling them in a way that means that we don't have to take seriously what they have to say.
You've spent a lifetime participating in and studying the civil rights movement, and we've certainly seen in recent months a new wave of it. What strikes you most when you see black activists today?
The scale of the movement? When I was 19 and saw two hundred thousand people at the march, I thought that was the most impressive event that I could have imagined. And but yet when George Floyd was was murdered within days, movement 10 times that size was was already being organized by mostly by young people. So I think that what has happened is that what used to require the best organizer of this generation, Bayard Rustin. The organized take months to organize the march on Washington now five kids with social media skills can bring together a larger demonstration than the march.
All of these movements have had an impact on young people, just the same way the civil rights struggle had an impact on me as a as a teenager. They've grown up with the idea of the Occupy movement that there's a basic inequities in American society they have done now influenced by all of the concern about mass incarceration and police behavior. So this is this is a new generation that has defining itself through their protest activity. And they've shown that they have the ability to mobilize on a global scale and they're not going away.
They'll be around for a while.
Dr. Carson, thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been a pleasure. That was my conversation with Dr. Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and author of the book Malcolm X The FBI File. Next on American Scandal in 1979, disco was a dominant force in American music. It took the top spot on the Billboard charts and sold countless records. But with its culturally diverse audience, Disco faced a major backlash.
And that would lead to a crisis one evening in July of 1979, when a prominent event at a baseball game turned into a riot. From Hungary, this is episode five of the feds versus the activists, four Americans can, if you like our show, please give us a five star rating and leave a review. Be sure to tell your friends, subscribe on our podcasts. Spotify, the one area where wherever you're listening right now, join one, replacing the one to listen at free.
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