The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered each year in January for giving his life while leading the charge to attain full civil rights for black Americans.
But it’s also important to remember how King was perceived by the very power structure he hoped to reform — as a national security threat instigating racial violence in cities across the nation, including Baltimore.
In a May 26, 1967, letter to CIA director Richard Helms, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enclosed a document entitled “Racial Violence Potential in the United States This Summer.” The document and Hoover’s letter are contained in the tens of thousands of documents related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the National Archives released to the public over the past two years.
The commentary contained in Hoover’s letter and the accompanying report provides a vivid reminder of how law enforcement considered King’s calls for non-violent resistance to be a cause of social unrest in the year before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It’s also striking how the analysis of events 50 years ago mirrors recent events in Baltimore: unrest stemming from police activity and the seeming resurgence of a white supremacist presence.
“All signs point toward recurrent racial strife throughout the Nation this summer," Hoover wrote. "Incessant agitation and propaganda by communists and extremists have contributed toward Negro unrest. In particular, individuals like Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael have fanned the flames of racial discord.”
The FBI director wrote that King and others were “embracing the communist tactic of linking the civil rights movement with the anti-Vietnam-War protest movement.”
“The antiwar campaign endorsed by King helps to promote communist aims and programs in the United States and abroad,” he wrote.
The accompanying FBI report on potential racial unrest states that “prophecies” of violence voiced by “Negro leaders” were “more numerous and more ominous than ever” in the spring of 1967.
“At least ten cities across the country were described by King as ‘powder kegs’ which could explode into racial violence this summer,” the report states.
The FBI analysis then provided a threat assessment for various cities.
Baltimore is described as a city of 917,000 people, “41 percent Negro.” Today, 63 percent of Batimore’s 612,000 residents are black, U.S. Census data shows.
The FBI’s description in 1967 of how social unrest followed a specific pattern nearly applies — save for some of the impolitic, pro-police language — to how the 2015 unrest developed following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.
“The escalation of an initial minor episode involving police action; a rapidly growing crowd and mounting excitement and hysteria fomented by troublemakers, extremists, and subversives; overt hostility toward the police, accompanied by wild charges of ‘police brutality’; the explosion of blind, irrational mob fury and action; street fighting between Negroes and police; hurling of rocks, bricks, bottles, fire bombs, and other objects; looting, vandalism, and arson; and, finally, summoning of police reserves and frequently the National Guard to restore law and order.”
Four years ago Baltimore officials blamed growing protests after Gray’s death on “outside agitators.” Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred to some of the protesters as “thugs.” A police union official called them a “lynch mob” for calling for the immediate arrest of the officers involved in Gray’s detention. And Gov. Larry Hogan sent the Maryland National Guard to Baltimore to quell unrest after a day that featured young students “hurling” rocks and bricks at police and a night of looting and fires.
One major divergence between then and now — in 1967, Baltimore police officials were confident that their community relations were so strong that violence that summer was highly unlikely.
“They believe that the Negro leadership, although at times radical, manages to control its followers and that the communication between the police and this leadership is good, largely due to the effectiveness of community relations councils set up by the Baltimore Police Department,” the FBI wrote.
Baltimore officials even went so far as to say any unrest would not arise from Baltimore’s black residents, but “either from police action in heavily populated Negro districts or from … white-supremacist hate groups.”
It’s a remarkable assessment for a police department that today faces deep public distrust and operates under a federal mandate to reform practices found to have violated the civil rights of black residents.
The warning about white supremacist groups is also sadly echoing today. The FBI document states that trouble in Baltimore in 1966 and 1967 had been caused by four white hate groups: the Fighting American Nationalists, the Baltimore (White) Citizens Council, the National States Rights Party and the Ku Klux Klan.
“A Klan group has recently distributed racial literature in a housing project in Baltimore,” the 1967 report states.
Flash forward to October 2018: Baltimore police investigated two incidents of KKK literature being distributed throughout a South Baltimore neighborhood.
As Taylor Branch, author of the civil rights trilogy “America in the King Years,” told The Baltimore Sun last year: “I think there’s a line” connecting then and now.
“There was a lot of despair that was loosed when King was killed,” said Branch, who lives in Baltimore. “But I don’t think it created anything, so much as [wakened] people up to a festering problem that had been ignored for a long time, and it’s still with us.”