Civil Rights Movement

Civil Rights Movement
Civil Rights Movement

Comprising some of the most momentous and tumultuous episodes and events in the history of the United States since abolition, the civil rights movement, not surprisingly, is associated with numerous conspiracy theories that issued (and continue to issue) from a diverse cross-section of political, ideological, and social viewpoints.

The most significant conspiracy theories regarding this area of interest concern the alleged Communist ties of the civil rights movement; the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans; covert and illegal operations of the government to countervail the efforts of civil rights groups; and ambiguities surrounding the assassinations of key civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

The civil rights movement in the United States must first and foremost be understood in terms of the civil, political, and juridical struggles to achieve racial equality and full citizenship rights for African Americans. Known also as the “Black Freedom Movement,” the “Negro Revolution,” and the “Second Reconstruction,” the civil rights movement was, at the outset, a challenge to the legally and socially sanctioned system of racial segregation.

This was called the Jim Crow system and was introduced at the level of state law by secessionist Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) as a means of retarding and reversing the advances made by African Americans during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. The Supreme Court later sanctioned the legitimacy of Jim Crow practices in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896), which upheld segregation in railroad cars.

Beyond its policies and practices of racial segregation, the Jim Crow system also engendered and sought to maintain the political and social disenfranchisement of African Americans through the systematic denial of voting rights, access to adequate education, and ownership of real estate. In response, individuals and organizations comprising the civil rights movement staged and otherwise participated in protest marches, boycotts, and physical violations of segregation laws.

Notwithstanding the continuing debate about both the actual date of its inception, and whether or not its objectives have indeed been fully realized, the civil rights movement is commonly recorded to have been inaugurated by the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and concluded with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Civil Rights Movement and Perceived Threats of Secularism and Communism

The increasing frequency of confrontations triggered by various constituents of the civil rights movement was accompanied by a growing body of opinion that a Communist conspiracy was behind not only domestic attempts at advancing the social and political status of African Americans, but also the mounting demands for decolonization worldwide.

As early as 1958, the then director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had stated that “[t]he Negro situation is being exploited fully and continuously by Communists on a national scale” (Davis, 319). While not purely speculative, since many Communist writers openly praised and voiced support for civil rights endeavors and identities, this statement was indicative of a greater store of anxieties entertained by many political and religious factions of the conservative Right.

Dr. King's historical speech
Dr. King's historical speech

Influenced by and drawing from the rhetoric of white and Christian supremacy, as well as the enduring collective anticommunism suspicions generated by McCarthyism and the context of the cold war, fundamentalist Christian groups such as the Christian Crusade led by Billy James Hargis were convinced that African Americans had not been averse toward segregation until they were suborned by nonChristian (or, “godless”) radicals.

In the widely distributed Communist America, Must It Be? (1960) Hargis charged the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Supreme Court as being composed of “Communist-front supporters” or otherwise linked to pro-communist subversive plots to undermine and dispossess “patriotic Christian-American people.”

Other prominent voices of the Christian Crusade included figures such as David Nobel, who talked of conspiratorial plots hatched by civil rights groups to replace the (Christian) “American way of life” with “primitive” and sexually licentious secularism. Similar, though less hyperbolical, views were circulated by political figures such as Medford Evans from the Conservative Society of America.

In the influential article “Civil Rights Myths and Communist Realities” (1963), for example, Evans asserted that not only was Martin Luther King, Jr., an instrument of communism, but that the comparatively conservative NAACP was effectively an organization operated by Communist forces.

In a bid to dispel public fears, a statement was issued by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy on 25 July 1963, which expressly denied the existence of any evidence implicating any of the heads of the primary civil rights groups to be Communists or “Communist-controlled.”

Nevertheless, for many individuals and collectives, the pervasive belief in the existence of surreptitious collusions between organizations of the civil rights movement and both domestic and international forces of communism could not be gainsaid.

For certain sectors of the population, it could be argued that denials such as Kennedy’s actually served to fuel the imaginations and apprehensions about the conspiratorial possibilities underlying any organized efforts to promote diversity and racial equality.

For example, the very popular underground novel The Turner Diaries (1980), written by white supremacist William Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald, futuristically portrays a heroic white supremacist insurrection against an “oppressive” racially diverse government called “The System.”

Conspiracies against Civil Rights Groups and Individuals

At the other end of the spectrum, in focusing upon the systemic nature of the disenfranchisement of African Americans and other cultural minority groups, radical perspectives including those of the predominantly European-American New Left and certain factions of the civil rights movement increasingly perceived the entrenched and institutionalized racial hegemony in the United States as a form of internal colonialism.

This domestic mode of colonialism was depicted by proponents such as Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam (and later the Organization of Afro-American Unity), Stokely Carmichael, and Charles V. Hamilton as a totalitarian, neo-imperialistic structure that subjugated black (and other minority) Americans and that was closely linked to U.S. economic and military exploitation and domination of developing countries.

While this portrayal cannot be understood strictly in terms of conspiracy theory discourse, it nevertheless served as an ideological and theoretical framework upon which claims about the conspiratorial nature of white privilege in the United States could be based.

For example, the widely read pulp fiction novellas of the 1960s and 1970s by underground African American writer Iceberg Slim drew greatly upon the ideological paradigms of Black Power while representing the federal government and the ruling white classes, both conservative and liberal, as white supremacists conspiring to maintain the economic, political, and social subjugation of black Americans.

While more broadly defined accounts of covert white supremacist plots enjoyed some popularity during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and beyond, public fascination in the United States and worldwide continues to be transfixed by conspiracy theories surrounding particular events, organizations, and political figures associated with the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the most durable of these theories concern the assassinations of two of the most prominent black leaders in the political history of the United States: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (née Malcolm Little; also known later by his adopted religious name, El-Hajj Malik ElShabazz).

Regardless of whether the civil rights movement is officially defunct or not, conspiracy theories appending the deaths of King and Malcolm X continue to circulate. In both cases, almost all of those theories implicate in the assassinations, to varying degrees, the federal government.

This is not surprising since both King and Malcolm X (and by and large, all known organizations associated with the civil rights movement) were closely monitored by government agencies throughout most of their respective careers. Moreover, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made no secret of his glaring contempt and anxiety toward the agendas and aspirations of civil rights groups and individuals.

Hoover not only believed that the civil rights movement threatened the societal stability of the United States, but because of their perceived potential as “black messiahs,” Hoover harbored great apprehensions toward influential African American figures such as King, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Muhammad.

Until it was exposed in early 1971, the FBI-launched Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) functioned beyond legal restrictions to, in Hoover’s own words, “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” groups and individuals associated with the civil rights movement.

The covert, systemic, and illegal operations of COINTELPRO directed against opponents to the government’s domestic and foreign policies were revealed in the 1970s by Senate and House committee inquiries to involve not only the FBI, but also the CIA, the United States Army Intelligence, the White House, the office of the attorney general, and even local and state law enforcement.

Known targets of COINTELPRO included the American Indian Movement, the Communist Party, the Socialist Worker’s Party, black nationalist groups, and many members of the New Left (comprising the Students for a Democratic Society, and a broad range of antiwar, antiracist, feminist, lesbian and gay, and environmentalist groups).