WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and his staff tried to get the FBI to build a case against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 on the grounds that King was "controlled by communists," according to a recently released FBI memo on the late senator from South Carolina.
The memo shows Thurmond's attempt to marry two causes dear to him—fighting communism and defeating civil rights.
On Monday, the FBI released a portion of Thurmond's FBI file—nearly 600 pages of sometimes heavily edited memos, letters and other documents. The file details a long, secret and mutually beneficial relationship between Thurmond and the FBI. Another 1,700 pages remain to be released. The documents were released in response to requests by The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
Thurmond wasn't the only conservative politician who tried to paint the civil rights movement's leaders as "red." But the FBI memo plumbs the depths of Thurmond's aversion to desegregation. And with other pages in the now-public file, it shows how much of Thurmond's politics was dedicated to fighting the "Red Menace."
Thurmond, an iconic figure in Southern political history and an ardent segregationist who later publicly embraced his black constituents, was willing to go to great lengths to vilify King in the 1960s.
The Sept. 15, 1965, memo, written by Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, a top deputy to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, recounts a meeting in the senator's office that was supposed to include Thurmond; instead, Thurmond was represented by aides.
One Thurmond aide, according to the FBI memo, said the senator wanted King to be exposed as a communist. DeLoach's memo recounts the aide "stated that it was widely understood that King was controlled by communists in this country."
The aide, whose name the FBI edited out of the memo, also reportedly asked DeLoach "if there was a concerted effort on the part of the FBI to discredit King."
DeLoach wrote that he responded that "such matters were beyond our jurisdiction."
It was later revealed that the FBI indeed had tried to discredit King by secretly wiretapping his telephone and leaking information to reporters and others.
At the meeting, the aide also showed DeLoach recent newspaper clippings in which Thurmond had criticized King for "injecting himself into matters of foreign policy at the United Nations."
Those same clippings, DeLoach wrote, criticized Arthur Goldberg, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for meeting with King.
Joe Darby, vice president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said Tuesday that those who opposed the civil rights movement tried to label its activists as communists.
"That was a very dirty word to get folks stirred up," he said. Many blacks were intimidated into silence, he said, because they knew standing up for their rights could invite the charge.
Today, Darby said, it's hard for people to realize how inflammatory the "communist" label was, but "it made sense to the white South in the 1960s."
"It was not a matter of logic; it was a matter of gut reaction."
Dan Carter, a nationally known civil rights historian at the University of South Carolina, attested to the power of the communist smear upon the civil rights movement.
"As late as 1962 or 1963, a majority of Americans actually believed that communists were involved or were instigators of the civil rights movement," he said.
Moreover, he said, the segregationist White Citizens Councils—in their appeals to Northerners—stressed the supposed communist leanings of civil rights workers rather than segregation.
"The segregationists played the anti-communist card," Carter said. "It was the one card they could deal to both Northerners and Southerners."
The FBI never conclusively found King was a communist, Carter said. But it tried to link him to communists by saying he associated with them or had ties to organizations that included communists.
Nevertheless, said Thurmond biographer Jack Bass, Hoover "no doubt was a source of Strom Thurmond's belief that Martin Luther King Jr. was heavily influenced by communists."
The 1965 memo says DeLoach expressed to Thurmond's aide an unwillingness to take up the senator's suggestion.
Instead, DeLoach advised the staffer that it was "the prerogative of any of the senators" to "expose" King, but they should "do their homework well."
Asked for advice on how to proceed against King, DeLoach recalled himself warning that Thurmond, as a Southerner, "would no doubt be considered subject to bias and suspicion in any statements he might make."
The Thurmond aide, according to DeLoach, also said the senator would like to meet with DeLoach on the matter. Records released by the FBI to date don't indicate whether that meeting ever took place.
The memo makes clear Thurmond's dislike of King. But the senator's admirers of today ask that his actions be considered in the context of the times—but also in the context of Thurmond's changing record on race.
It's a complicated picture. In his 1947 inaugural address as governor of South Carolina, Thurmond—widely considered a progressive—urged whites to improve black public schools, which were generally far inferior to white schools.
His tack soon changed. In 1948, he ran for president on the segregationist States Rights Party ticket, promising to fight for separate schools, churches and swimming pools for blacks and whites.
But Thurmond, who set records as the longest-serving and oldest senator in history, charted a new course in the 1970s. In 1971, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black aide. And in 1983, he voted to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday.
South Carolina state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a longtime Thurmond friend and supporter, said Thurmond's criticism of King must be understood in context. The senator and many other Americans were genuinely concerned about the spread of communism, Courson said.
In the 1940s and 1950s, eastern Europe and China both turned communist. The "iron curtain" went up, restricting movement in Europe. Communist North Korea invaded South Korea.
In the United States, the spy trial of State Department official Alger Hiss, the selling of secret hydrogen bomb plans to the Soviet Union and the hearings of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy into communism in the State Department provoked widespread fear.
"One didn't know whether one's next-door neighbor was a Marxist or not," Courson said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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