As I mentioned recently, I'm reading At Canaan's Edge, the final book in Taylor Branch's massive trilogy subtitled "America in the King Years".
These books are revelatory, inspiring and deeply disturbing. I have been moved beyond measure by the extraordinary courage of ordinary people, who overcame well-justified terror and sacrificed so much for equality and freedom. I also have been profoundly troubled at learning still more about the dark history of the country of my birth.
The greatest revelations, for me, in the first two books, were about President John F. Kennedy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
I came to despise Kennedy's legacy as the "civil rights president". JFK was, in fact, a stubborn obstacle to civil rights. Although he supported integration personally, he blocked it politically, until it was more politically harmful than useful to continue that route.
JFK's motives were simple: he wouldn't give up the Southern Democrat vote. Kennedy and his people lacked the vision to foresee the coming sea-change in the US electorate: that once a Democrat signed a Civil Rights Act, African-American voters would, en masse, switch from voting Republican - the party of Lincoln, and the antithesis of the party of the Dixie segregationists - to voting Democrat.
By contrast, Lyndon B. Johnson was the civil rights president. He is also the president of Medicare, immigration reform and sweeping anti-poverty measures. He is the president whose Great Society continued and extended the promise of Roosevelt's New Deal. Unfortunately, he is also the president who secretly authorized and escalated the US's war in southeast Asia.
J. Edgar Hoover was the single greatest enemy of the civil rights movement, and a personal enemy of its leaders. He brought the full weight of the FBI's massive resources to bear against King and the civil rights movement. He was often the most powerful man in the US government.
In this area, the most stunning revelation to me was how Hoover was able to obtain authorization for near-total surveillance of King. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the sweeping and unprecedented roving wiretaps that preceded and followed King's every movement because Hoover was blackmailing his brother, the President.
Hoover had evidence, including photographs, of JFK's constant sexual affairs, including one with an East German spy. Apparently Kennedy's sexual appetites make Bill Clinton look like a cub scout. Because no one was free from Hoover's surveillance, he knew all about JFK's many women, and he used that knowledge to get what he wanted out of the Justice Department. (President Johnson was adamantly opposed to this kind of surveillance - so he was assured that it didn't exist.)
Under Hoover's surveillance, King was always the enemy. Hoover successfully frustrated movement goals at every opportunity. He purposely failed to act against real threats to King's life, and manipulated situations to purposely put King's life in danger. Many people know about the infamous "suicide letter," when Hoover blackmailed King about his own extramarital affairs, suggesting suicide as a way out. Fewer know how many times King narrowly escaped with his life, thanks to Hoover. King himself never knew.
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I've just read what is - so far - the greatest revelation to me in this final book. (Since the book deals with King's assassination, I am sure other, greater revelations are ahead.)
There was a woman named Viola Liuzzo. Liuzzo grew up in Tennessee, the daughter of a coal miner, and now lived in Detroit with her husband and their five children. She was an ordinary working person. When President Johnson gave his famous speech in support of voting rights in March of 1965, she was moved to action. She drove by herself from Michigan to Alabama to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery.
The march concluded with King's famous (and always truncated) speech: "How Long? Not Long!" When the crowd broke up, local participants were far from home, having traveled on foot over several days, sleeping in muddy fields with military protection along the roadside. Since Liuzzo had a car, she was part of the "transportation committee," helping to drive people back to their homes.
This meant that a white woman and a black man were in a car together.
Military protection was disbanding, and the Klan was looking for action. Liuzzo's car was tailed, then fired on. She was killed. She was 39 years old.
The FBI was widely praised for their swift action in cracking the Liuzzo case and bringing the perpetrators to justice. I just learned why their actions appeared to be so swift. One of the Klansmen in the car was an FBI informant. He had clearance to ride with the posse. Hoover knew about the impending violence in advance.
This same informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, "had asked for and received prior FBI approval to ride with Thursday's action squad [the Klansmen who killed Liuzzo], as he had been doing for nearly five years of unsolved crimes by the Birmingham Klan".
President Johnson and the entire Justice Department would never learn Hoover's secret.
More about the Viola Liuzzo - her actions, her death, the posthumous FBI smear campaign against her, and the legal proceedings that followed - here on Wikipedia.
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Among other lessons I take from this, I am reminded to never dismiss the fears of my compatriots as paranoia.