Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in May of 1925. Martin Luther King Jr (original birth name Michael) was born in January of 1929. Antonin Scalia, a sitting conservative United States Supreme Court Justice, was born in March of 1936. Colin Powell, the retired Army Four Star General and Secretary of State, was born in April of 1937. Finally, John Lewis, currently a Georgia Congressman, was born in February of 1940.
Although the five aforementioned luminaries were born within 14 years of each other and in theory, would have witnessed many of the great events in their childhoods from World War II to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, their journeys in life–and perceptions of the times in which they were raised–were and are critically different.
In 2013, the late Justice Scalia, a grandiloquent if not at times combative conservative, caused a furor when he dismissively referred to the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as four decades of “racial entitlement.” What struck me as curious about Scalia’s words was that in knowing the price that was paid in blood, sweat, tears and lives lost for that very Act to be signed in 1965, it seems as if Scalia, who was enjoying the comforts and prestige of being a young lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio, during the same period, perhaps now or was then completely clueless about what was going on in the Jim Crow South during this era.
When I first learned of Scalia’s remarks, I wondered whether he had ever taken the time to speak with Rep. John Lewis, a longtime fixture in Congress from Georgia who only months before the VRA was signed, had his head nearly split open while helping to lead the protest march from Selma to Montgomery that March.
Cognizant that only weeks before that March that Malcolm X had been killed by what many historians believe was nothing short than a government ordered hit, and that civil rights protester Jimmy Lee Jackson had been slain in Alabama by an Alabama State Trooper that same month, that Lewis and his colleagues still were willing to advocate non-violence in their quest for voting rights is a testament to their patience and courage. Being further cognizant that perspectives are often shaped by one’s experiences, it is clear that Scalia’s remarks are nothing short of the personification of patrician white male privilege and entitlement masquerading as erudition.
By 1965, the previous year’s Civil Rights Act had slowly begun to take root in the south as restaurants, stores and malls were compelled by federal law to serve blacks. As Colin Powell would later note, during this period, while serving as a young officer in Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, said Powell “the Army was becoming more democratic, but I was plunged back into the Old South every time I left the post. I could go into the Woolworth’s in Columbus and buy anything I wanted, as long as I did not try to eat there. I could go into a department store and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men’s room. I could walk along the street as long as I did not look at a white woman.”
Still, as blacks gained greater access to public accommodations, the right to vote was still an exercise in futility for most throughout the south. When President Johnson made good on his promise to Dr. King and his colleagues in signing the VRA that summer, the same forever ended the poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and other chicanery then used to prevent blacks and even some poor whites from voting.
(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr looks on as President Lyndon Johnson signs the VRA)
While the VRA was an unqualified success, the many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement not only faced the open derision and violence of arch segregationists in the south, but they often faced suspicion even from among political leaders like President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The Kennedy brothers were spooked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s insistence that most of the major civil rights groups were heavily infiltrated by the Communist Party. While there certainly were a few King aides that arguably had strong leftist leanings, chief among them King confidante Bayard Rustin and lawyer Stanley Levinson, the idea that the entire movement was bent on destroying American Democracy is a slander that fails to account for the movement’s true aim, which was equal rights under the law.
Undaunted, Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) remains one of the more chilling government efforts to stymie the progress of civil rights during the 1960’s. The official aim of the program was to protect the United States from domestic political activity and as early as 1928, some form of this program existed as a means to subvert the influence of communist, socialist and other radical leftist groups like the Ku Klux Klan that used violence to achieve their ends.
In 1956, nearly two years after the United States Supreme Court declared segregation illegal following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Hoover initiated COINTELPRO to “increase factionalism, cause disruptions and win defections” inside civil rights and black affiliated organizations like the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”). While these organizations practiced non-violence tactics, Hoover’s aim was to paint each with the same broad brush as the very Ku Klux Klan and other racists they opposed by creating a belief in the popular media that their true aims were to overthrow of the American government.
It is well documented that the misanthropic Hoover hated most of the presidents that he served under, but that he had a particular dislike for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While both advocated to differing degrees the cause of civil rights on behalf of the federal government, Hoover was quietly seeking to undermine these efforts through illegal terror under the guise of legal authority. As was typical in FBI covert operations, Hoover’s minions recruited traitorous blacks to assist in their nefarious designs by infiltrating civil rights organizations to spy and cause internal strife and dissension. Chief among these was Ernest Withers, a celebrated photographer who provided many of the iconic images of Dr. King and his fellow leaders during the movement including the chaotic picture of Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson pointing in the direction of the gunman in the confusing moments after King was shot at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in April of 1968.
Another crucial FBI informant was John Ali, an aide to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad who reportedly met with Malcolm X’s convicted assassins the night before his death in February of 1965. Perhaps the most dangerous FBI infiltrator was Gary Rowe, who was actively involved in attacks on Freedom Riders in 1962 and 1963 as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little black girls in September of 1963.
The Bureau also used tactics such as rounding up suspected civil rights leaders and members for police interrogations in addition to filing tax evasion charges to tie leaders and organizations up in litigation. The Bureau also conspired with local law enforcement to kill group members who “resisted arrest” or imprison others for trumped-up charges like Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Black Panther leader who was framed for murder and sat in a California prison for 27 years before the indefatigable efforts of his attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran, produced an FBI witness who corroborated that the Bureau knew that Pratt was not even in the area when the alleged murder took place.
The Bureau, on Hoover’s direct command, also used psychological warfare such as the surreptitious taping of Dr. Martin Luther King allegedly during an illicit affair and mailing the tape to King’s wife, Coretta, with a threat of exposing the tape to the public shortly after King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
While COINTELPRO was discontinued “officially” in 1971–a year before Hoover’s death, its legacy is one that causes many modern blacks to still maintain a strong level of mistrust of the true aims of government official where civil and voting rights are concerned.