“No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time. – from the eulogy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Rev. Benjamin Mays

As the 40th anniversary of his death approaches, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues to be a galvanizing personality in the discussion for human dignity. Due to his relative youth, 39 years old at the time of his demise, he joined the pantheon of icons celebrated as much for the unfulfilled possibilities of a life cut short as much as the accomplishments attained while he lived.

Reverends Willis Williams, A.D. Williams, and M.L. King Sr.
Born into a family of ministers committed to the struggle for civil rights, King was exposed to an atmosphere dedicated to social activism from his childhood. This ancestral tradition of spreading the gospel can be traced to Rev. Willis Williams (1810-1874), his maternal great-grandfather who was described as “an old slavery time preacher,” going back to the pre-Civil War era.
The Army began watching King’s grandfather, Rev. A.D. Williams, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in September, 1917. -“Who Shot Martin Luther King?” article by J. J. Maloney in Crime Magazine, 1999.
The first pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. A.D. Williams’ (1861-1931) natural inclination towards the pursuit of justice earned him the presidency of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch and the scrutiny of the government, who already viewed black churches as potential sources for sedition. Rev. Williams later distinguished himself by successfully petitioning for the first black high school (Washington High School) in Atlanta, an achievement that earned him a notation in his official army intelligence file as a “radical Negro agitator,” and the first known member of the King clan to be the subject of government investigation.
The fear of radical groups including recent immigrant anarchists and the followers of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, prompted President Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to initiate his famous “Palmer Raids” (1918-1922) and induced the War Department to designate a special section devoted to the supervision of what was termed “Negro subversion.” In a precursor of things to come, the military and the Bureau of Investigation (later to become the F.B.I.) were aided and abetted by informers within the black community who reported on the activities of A.D. Williams and other African American leaders.
The story of America’s mistrust and surveillance of its black population through army intelligence and the F.B.I. deserves a story in itself, but as far as the King family specifically, a practice was begun that continued through the coming decades with monitoring of the successor to the Ebenezer pulpit, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., whose association with the communist affiliated National Negro Congress raised concerns, and in turn his son Martin Jr., when he became an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Army Intelligence opened its file on MLK Jr. in 1947 with a photograph showing him and other Morehouse College students leaving a meeting of Mrs. Dorothy Lilley’s Intercollegiate Council. She was a suspected Communist, according to the file on King kept by the 111th Military Intelligence Group at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. – “Army Feared King, Secretly Watched Him” article by Stephen G. Tompkins in the Sunday, March 21, 1993 Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Howard Thurman and King
It is unclear that the young collegian was aware of being such an object of interest as he went about the pursuit of his studies in the wake of World War II. A more likely priority was his retention of the many influences that would have a profound bearing on his later life, such as Howard Thurman. Proclaimed as one of the 12 greatest living religious figures in 1953 by Life magazine, this fellow Morehouse graduate and classmate of Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. had achieved recognition as a prolific author, including 1949’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” which influenced a whole generation of religious and lay people committed to the civil rights cause, King included, Howard University dean, and founder of the first integrated congregation, San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1944. Even before this, he’d steered a delegation of African American citizens as chairman of the Pilgrimage of Friendship to meet the Indian Nationalist and peace advocate Mohandas Gandhi in 1935. Howard mentored young Martin when he assumed tenure as a professor of theology at Boston University, and the latter was enrolled as a graduate student.

Reinhold Niebuhr and King
Another important influence on his developing mind was the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the leading American religious thinkers of the 20th Century also alluded to by current Presidential hopeful Barack Obama in an April 26, 2007 New York Times article as “one of my favorite philosophers.” Niebuhr, whose distain for the inhumanity of industrialized America led him to flirt with socialism before resigning from the party in 1940 and becoming a staunch opponent of communism after World War II, is best known today for his application of Christianity to the realities of contemporary life. While King disagreed with Niebuhr’s contention that pacifism is unrealistic as a counter to the world’s evils, he acknowledged his debt to the philosopher in his intellectual development in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from April 16, 1963. An excerpt follows”
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”

Bayard Rustin and King
One of the most overlooked and provocative figures in the struggle for civil rights, was a brilliant strategist and organizational genius named Bayard Rustin. He is largely forgotten today because he worked behind-the-scenes and was unapologetic about his homosexuality. A seasoned veteran of passive resistance long before his association with King, with a long rap sheet of arrests such as his refusal to serve in the armed forces in World War II, and rebuffing desegregation laws in North Carolina in keeping with the Quaker traditions in which he was raised. Rustin’s private inclinations got him detained locally in 1953, when Pasadena police caught him engaging in “lewd vagrancy” with two white men in a parked car.
“Adam Clayton Powell didn’t want blacks picketing the Democratic Convention. In fact, he went so far as to warn King that if King did not withdraw his support from that demonstration, he would go to the press and say that there was a sexual affair going on between me and King. Martin was so terrified by this that he decided he would get rid of me.” – from “Brother Outsider: The life of Bayard Rustin,” a PBS documentary by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singe.
His place in history was anchored when he began assisting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rustin may be most notable as the person who convinced King to fully embrace non-violence. Prior to Montgomery, King was said to have routinely kept firearms at hand and armed guards at his door. Rustin’s sexual orientation, an “open secret” in the parlance of the times demonized him in the eyes of both staunch segregationists and his peers within the movement, but no one could deny the unique gifts that he brought to the table in the conception and implementation of strategies and tactics to reach movement goals.

Stanley Levison and King
Although Rustin began his career as a member of the Young Communist League (YCL) in the 1930s before becoming disillusioned by their drift away from civil rights issues, he nonetheless formed an alliance with Stanley Levison, a Jewish American attorney and known communist sympathizer who raised money for southern civil rights organizations including the Montgomery boycott. In due course, he introduced Levison to King as a potential asset, and over the next decade he became a close confidant, fund raiser, speech writer and tax consultant.
At this time Levison also aroused the attention of two members in the hierarchy of the Communist Party of the U.S.A (CPUSA), Jack and Morris Childs. Paradoxically, in what is one of the most overlooked stories of the Cold War, the Morris Brothers were simultaneously agents for the F.B.I. for 30 years, rubbing elbows with such dignitaries as Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, resulting in their being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. In 1960, however these Ukrainian nationals were deep undercover and attained such a level of trust within the party that they became a conduit to shuttle operational funds from Russia, to the tune of one million dollars annually. At the same time the party had determined that the civil rights movement deserved special attention, and towards that end a special section for “negro and southern affairs” was created. A logical progression of this policy was to focus the party’s resources on the movements most charismatic and visible leader.

The Kennedys and King
The feds and the justice department in turn, concentrated their attentions on these new developments, reasoning that their Russian rivals, using the CPUSA by proxy, might try to manipulate African Americans through the influence of King’s association with Levison and others. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer had a keen interest in these proceedings counter balanced by his commitment to equality evidenced by his deployment of government troops to enforce James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962. Towards this end, RFK and his brother, President John F. Kennedy used their own relationship with King to persuade him to terminate his friendship with Levison and others who might embarrass the civil rights movement. King remained steadfast in his loyalties however, which maybe one reason behind the controversial decision by the Kennedys to tap the phones of King and his associates in October 1963.
This continued well after King’s death, with wiretaps on his widow Coretta. At her 2006 funeral, former President Jimmy Carter alluded to this and indirectly took a jab at President George W. Bush’s warrant-less wiretap controversy in the following excerpt:
“It was difficult for them [the King family] then personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps.” – former President Jimmy Carter.

Mohandas Gandhi and King
“My life is its own message” – Mohandas Gandhi responding to Chicago Defender reporter Denton J. Brooks’ 1945 request for a message to black people in America.

In February of 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King went to India sponsored by the Quaker organization American Friends Society Committee. This trip was both a touch stone to consolidate his roots in nonviolent resistance, and consistent with his rise from addressing a national issue like desegregation to global concerns.
The journey allowed him to understand the commonality in the struggle against poverty and intolerance. King saw a parallel between Gandhi’s struggle to free his fellow Indians from British rule and the African American struggle for equal access to public accommodations, a decent living, and human dignity. It also enabled him to see the impact that his efforts in the American south had on the world at large. As a testament to the esteem with which he was held, New Delhi, India’s Link Magazine listed Dr. King as one of 16 world leaders who had done the most for the advancement of freedom during 1959.
By interacting with Gandhi disciplines, King was further able to grasp the philosophy of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit term incorporating passive resistance and the conversion of one’s opponent to strive towards the same objectives. At the time, no one saw the contradiction of a Negro preacher embracing the tenets of a man with deep seated issues not only about the Africans he came in contact with as a young lawyer in South Africa, but with native Indians lower than he on his country’s caste system, or social picking order (the Indian caste system is considered among the world’s most restrictive). Gandhi himself regularly used the term Kaffir, a word originally meaning heathen, but now exclusively used as a racial slur, similar to the “n-word.”

“Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir…” – from a 1896 public address in Bombay by Mohandas Gandhi

The Sacred and the Profane
King himself struggled with personality flaws, as does most of humanity. While not overtly seeking material wealth, he enjoyed silk suits and fine clothes. Called to quest for spiritual fulfillment, he indulged in the secular pleasures of rich food. In the aftermath of his death rumors of his extramarital affairs abounded, revived again in 1988 with the publication of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, by his right hand man, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. Michael Eric Dyson, noted author, educator, social commentator, as well as an ordained Baptist minister in his own right, touched on King’s alleged indulgences in the 2000 biography I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the product of myriad influences far removed from his Southern Gospel traditions, and at the same time he remained very much a part of them. Substantiation of his lasting impact may be seen both by the media saturation that accompanies his birthday celebration, and the legions of defamers conspiring to desecrate his legacy. One of the most notable of these is a website set up by white supremacists. This domain name uses its innocuous facade to continue the smear tactics and half truths initiated nearly a century ago into the cyber age, with a rehash of all the rumors and innuendos of academic inadequacies, communist ties, sexual depravity, and above all, a repeal of the holiday honoring him.
In our society, those who assume the mantle of public figure leave themselves open to the projection of other peoples’ values, at times resulting in the simultaneous denigration and glorification of that particular person. At the same time many cultivate a voyeuristic interest in the seamy side of a given luminary. Consequently, we have those who wish to canonize the fallen leader concurrently with those yearning to topple the icon. Over the years, the myth may become greater then the person, which may explain why, in the view of many there has yet to be a replacement for Martin Luther King Jr.

Sources used in the compilation of this article include the following:
* 11 News exclusive: Inside the FBI’s secret files on Coretta Scott King by David Raziq & Mark Greenblatt for 11 News Defenders, KHOU-TV Houston.
* Black American Radicalism and the First World War: The Secret Files of the Military Intelligence Division, article by LT. COL. WRAY R. JOHNSON, U.S.A.F.; From Armed Forces & Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Publication Date: 22-SEP-99
* Can King’s Legacy Be Reclaimed from Its Abusers? article by Kevin Alexander Gray in the January 2003 issue of Counter Punch.
* Dissing the King, article by Lee Hubbard in the Jan 24, 2000 issue of Salon Magazine.
* I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. by Michael Eric Dyson review by Mark Anthony Neal in the on line journal Pop Matters, 2000.
* The Myth of Mahatma Gandhi, by Arthur Kemp from the February 2, 2004 issue of The Revisionist, Journal for Critical History Inquiry.
* Operation Solo: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin by John Barron, Regnery Publishing, 1996.
* Reinhold Niebuhr is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections, article by Benedicta Cipolla in the September 27, 2007 issue of the Religion News Service.
* Reports Army spied on King, other black leaders – Martin Luther King, Jr., article in the April 5, 1993 issue of Jet Magazine.
* Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Verso Publishing, 1998.