Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wiretapping and Freedom and MLK

Review by Bill Doughty

"For students of freedom and teachers of history"

That's the dedication for Taylor Branch's 2013 "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," a book of highlights of his MLK trilogy. 
"The King Years" offers highlights of "Parting the Waters," "Pillars of Fire" and "At Canaan's Edge," in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning Branch presents the definitive history of America's civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s through the life of its chief architect, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Branch recognizes the limitations due to brevity in his 18 historical turning points from the 1954-1968 era represented in "The King Years."  Despite the "hybrid framework," as Branch calls it, the book is essential to anyone who wants to understand King's influence but who doesn't have time to read 2,306 pages that took Branch 24 years to write.
"Our goal in this edition is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement.  Newer generations will find here the gist of a patriotic struggle in which the civil rights pioneers, like modern Founders, moved an inherited world of hierarchy and subjugation toward common citizenship.  Others can recall vivid triumph and tragedy at the heart of national purpose for the United States, whose enduring story is freedom.  The unvarnished history should resist fearful tides to diminish that story.  Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite every hardship, against all odds."
Dr. King in Birmingham jail, 1967.
King's story begins in 1954, sixty years ago this year, the same year as the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education against school segregation.

From Montgomery to Nashville, Birmingham to Selma, with a requiem in Memphis, "The King Years" focuses on crossroads largely between Alabama and Tennessee -- with Birmingham at the center. 

"Birmingham had suddenly changed King from a tireless drone on the speaking circuit to the star of a swarming hive," Branch writes.  The author also makes stops in Mississippi, Chicago, Cow Palace, Atlantic City, Oslo and Vietnam.

The book explores the Dr. King's relationships with close advisors, religious leaders, politicians including LBJ, and government officials, notably J. Edgar Hoover who investigated King as a suspected communist.  He shows how FBI wiretapping contributed to "twisting every motive and circumstance ... spreading false information" in order to breed confusion, resentment and mistrust.
Who was listening?
More detail and context are described in the long historical narrative of Branch's trilogy.  For example -- from "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963":
"There was more to Hoover's reaction than either his hostility to communism or his prejudice against Negroes, both of which were strong.  Above all else, the Director was a consummate bureaucrat, sensitive to deep historical tides.  Twenty years earlier, the FBI had mushroomed in size to guard against Nazi espionage.  From a mid-Depression force of fewer than five hundred agents, the Bureau had more than tripled by Pearl Harbor, then tripled again by D-Day.  Hoover never needed further education on the advantages of an intelligence agency over a law enforcement department.  An intelligence agency enjoyed greater prestige, less danger of public failure, greater freedom and power through the mystique of secrecy, and an enhanced role for shaping national values and symbols.  To avoid postwar retrenchment at the FBI, he fought a protracted bureaucratic war to become chief of the new worldwide intelligence apparatus -- even though he spoke no foreign languages and never then or later set foot outside the United States.  On losing out finally to the newly created CIA, a vengeful Hoover had extracted from President Truman a major consolation prize: responsibility for 'background checks' and other loyalty investigations of federal employees.  Such work not only sustained the Bureau's manpower levels through the McCarthy era but vastly increased Hoover's political influence as the defender and oracle of domestic security."
J. Edgar Hoover advises President Richard Nixon.
"The King Years" doesn't include mention of the National Security Agency's Project Minaret, a surveillance initiative in the late 60s against MLK and other nonviolent activists and Vietnam protesters. Secret information about NSA's Project Minaret was revealed by the Church Commission and reported in recent months by PBS Frontline and George Washington University.

Taylor Branch concludes with an ode to the global legacy of nonviolence from "At Canaan's Edge."
"A paradox remains.  Statecraft is still preoccupied with the levers of spies and force, even though two centuries of increasingly lethal 'total war' since Napoleon suggest a diminishing power of violence to sustain governance in the modern world. Military leaders themselves often stress the political limits  Military leaders themselves often stress the political limits of warfare, but politics is slow to recognize the glaring impact of nonviolent power.  In 1987, students spilling into the streets of South Korea compelled a dictator to respect a permanent structure for elections.  In 1989, the Soviet empire suddenly dissolved in a velvet revolution of dockworkers' strikes and choruses of 'We Shall Overcome' at the dismantled Berlin Wall.  There was no warning from experts, nor any hint of the nuclear cataclysm long prepared for and dreaded.  That same year, Chinese students inspired the world from Tiananmen Square with nonviolent demonstrations modeled on the sit-ins, planting seeds of democracy in the authoritarian shell of Communist control.  In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from twenty-seven years in prison to a Cape Town Balcony, where he destroyed the iron rule of apartheid not with Armageddon's revenge but a plea for hopeful consent: 'Universal suffrage on a common voters' roll in a united, democratic, and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony."
Branch's dedication at the beginning of "The King Years" -- "For students of freedom and teachers of history" -- explicitly highlights the importance of education in promoting freedom and democracy, principles the Navy defends around the world.

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