Yesterday’s federal holiday for MLK included the usual homages but, as usual, little reference to the civil rights martyr’s Cold War role. He emerged in the 1950s at the near height of USA tensions with the Soviets. Racial discrimination made America look hypocritical as it argued to the world for the superiority of USA democracy. So the civil rights cause for some became a national security imperative. Others claimed the Civil Rights Movement was subversively infiltrated by Communists and/or fellow travelers.
The Kennedy Administration authorized wiretaps of MLK based on these concerns, focused especially on MLK confidant Stanley Levison, a former Communist Party USA member whom JFK unsuccessfully implored MLK to disavow. Of course J. Edgar Hoover, who came of age and rose to prominence during the post WWI Red Scare, was obsessed with MLK’s potential communist ties. Wiretaps of MLK revealed his adulteries, about which the Kennedys and later LBJ would gossip, but no affinity with communism.
A KGB defector decades later confirmed not only that MLK was unhelpful to the Soviets, he was actively targeted by the KGB because of his commitment to American democratic ideals. Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was a longtime KGB archivist who gradually across the years became disenchanted with the Soviet system. He began taking copious notes from KGB records that he hid in his home, totaling over 20,000 pages, which he gave to British intelligence after the Soviet Union collapsed and he defected in 1992. Many of the notes were first published in 1999, in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, with the archive itself opened in 2014.
The Mitrokhin Archive indicates that American communists in the earlier stages of the Civil Rights Movement confidently boasted to their Soviet masters of their influence on MLK. But their boasts were, like most of their aspirations about a Sovietized America, wishfully delusional, believed by a KGB that was even more ignorant about America. MLK’s hailing the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” did not echo Soviet purposes. Neither did his declaration that the “goal of America is freedom … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
According to Mitrokhin’s notes, when the KGB realized in the 1960s that MLK aimed to reform and not subvert American democracy it resolved to discredit him as a stooge of American capitalism, in a campaign led by the same KGB official who had earlier managed celebrated British spies like Kim Philby. KGB planted articles in Africa that portrayed MLK as a paid tool of the Johnson Administration were designed to filter into American media. The KGB hoped to supplant MLK with a more Marxist-friendly black leader like Stokeley Carmichael, who enthusiastically visited Havana and Hanoi.
Of course, the KGB campaign against MLK flopped and its hopes for pro-Soviet black revolutionaries were absurd. The Civil Rights Movement was mostly led by black church leaders who looked to the Bible and America’s founding documents for inspiration.
There are many ironies in this story. Claims by clueless and inconsequential American communists that MLK could help the Soviet cause likely helped delude both the KGB and FBI. Both the KGB and FBI at various points tried to discredit MLK as being a tool of the respective other. The Mitrokhin files indicate the KGB was trying to discredit J. Edgar Hoover while it was also targeting MLK. While the KGB was trying to paint MLK as compliant servant of LBJ, MLK was denouncing LBJ’s war policy, prompting LBJ, who felt betrayed after having backed civil rights, to great fury against MLK, including increased obsession with MLK’s adulteries, which were known because of FBI surveillance provoked by what turned out to be MLK’s nonexistent communist sympathies. MLK knew of FBI exertions against him but seems not to have known about the KGB’s campaign, whose disinformation against him he perhaps ironically surmised came from the FBI.
The Mitrokhin Archive portrays the KGB as often feckless and blinded by the delusional ideology that tormented the Soviet Union. A police state dedicated to subverting facts to benefit the regime definitionally will have trouble collecting, reporting and analyzing intelligence about its perceived enemies correctly. And a democracy must be careful not to confuse dissent with subversion or to obsess over minor dangers, such as the puny Communist Party USA during the Cold War, versus authentic threats.
MLK was never a threat to but in fact was a champion of American democracy. By rhetoric and conviction he was more Jeffersonian than Marxist, quoting Jefferson’s most famous words in his own most famous speech: “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.'” In his heterodox Enlightenment Christian theology, MLK was also similar to Jefferson, more exponent of biblical justice than orthodox creed.
The pursuit of justice in our fallen world is always at best uneven. Yet God achieves His purposes and moves us forward despite ourselves. Holidays honor great men, but such men are great only because He works through them, which MLK himself would readily acknowledge.