Friday, January 22, 2010

The King Files

The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) [meeting above] was established in 1976 to investigate the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations. The Committee investigated until 1978, and in 1979 issued its final report, concluding that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, probably as a result of a conspiracy. On the King assassination, the Committee concluded in its report that he was killed by one rifle shot from James Earl Ray, that "there is a likelihood" that this was the result of a conspiracy, and that no U.S. government agency was part of this conspiracy probably between Earl Ray and his brothers.

Now to that 'other' post I wanted to write concerning Martin Luther King. As hard as it is to believe, nearly 50 years after the height of the civil rights movement, hundreds of thousands of pages of government files about the volatile era still remain shielded from the American public, buried in FBI field office cabinets, blocked by resistant bureaucracies, or available only with large sections blacked out. The situation has prompted a new push in Congress, led by Sen. John F. Kerry [D, Mass.], to require that all records relating to the life and death of King be located, reviewed, and released by a review board at the National Archives similar to those established for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and for Nazi war criminals.

Once you get past the shock that Kerry is doing something that is not self-promoting, you can see that Kerry’s legislation - introduced this week - is but the first step in a broader movement to force the government to disclose what it knows - and did - about violence against blacks during the civil rights era, including scores of unsolved lynching and bombing cases.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,’’ said Rep. John Lewis [D, Ga.], a former King aide who was beaten nearly to death during a civil rights march in 1965. “The American people have a right to know what happened.’’

The often frustrating task of persuading the FBI to open all its records from that period has been undertaken primarily by loosely organized relatives of victims, lawyers, journalists, and part-time writers such as Stuart Wexler, a New Jersey social studies teacher. Once you get past the fact that a public school social studies teacher is doing something outside the classroom other than trying to get into the panties of one or more of his students, you learn that Wexler, 33, was recently researching a book about plots to murder King when he learned the FBI’s archives contained a document about a Ku Klux Klan leader who claimed to have played a role in the civil rights leader’s assassination in 1968. When Wexler filed a request for a copy, he was informed that it had been destroyed as part of regular house cleaning. He then learned there had been a government clerical error and the file was not lost to history. Still, Wexler will have to submit another formal request, this time with the right file number, and is unsure what he will receive, or when he will receive it.

Others also believe the FBI is holding on to a variety of records that may contain valuable information, including leads the FBI did not follow about a rash of racial killings in the South from the 1940s to the 1960s. The recently established Civil Rights Cold Case Project - made up of family members, journalists, and civil rights lawyers - hopes to find more answers. It recently sought support from Attorney General Eric H. Holder, who responded in writing that the Justice Department “is engaged in internal discussions about how best to proceed . . . in order to achieve the most responsible public disclosure possible.’’

According to the National Archives, the FBI maintains one of the largest backlogs of requests, such as Wexler’s, that have been filed under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA], a law designed to provide public access to broad categories of information. In a statement, FBI spokesman Paul E. Bresson said “requests are routinely completed pursuant to the laws that govern the process’’ and said the bureau is “not aware of the concerns’’ about King and other records. I'm guessing some people in the bureau are still "not aware" that King was even shot.

Part of the problem is that, unless researchers know which specific documents to request, there is little chance of success, and as a result there needs to be an alternate mechanism along the lines of what Kerry is advocating for King files. Researchers insist that what the government knew at the time about widespread racial violence could be crucial in solving some murders, such as the brutal killing of Clifton Walker, a father of five who was shot in the face on his way home from work in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1964.

“The FBI documents I have [on the Walker case] are highly redacted. I stare at them every day,’’ said Ben Greenberg, 40, a freelance journalist in Somerville, Massachusetts, who is working with the Cold Case Project. “If I knew whose name was under there or could better piece together what circumstances are being described, I’d be further down the path.’’ Greenberg thinks government files about a rash of racially motivated killings at the time in southwest Mississippi might contain information that could help solve multiple cases. “If these files were more broadly available and not redacted they could provide a road map,’’ said Greenberg, whose father, Paul, worked for King in the early 1960s.

Opening up all the files on King is seen by Kerry and others as a good start. For example, thousands of pages on King that were shipped to the National Archives by the FBI have languished for years without being processed for public viewing. “This hidden collection problem is huge,’’ said David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States.

Other King-related records have been sealed, including those reviewed by a special House committee in the late 1970s that concluded the assassin who shot King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, James Earl Ray, did not work alone. Those records are not set to be released for nearly 20 more years. “I want it all out. I wanted it all out back then,’’ said G. Robert Blakey, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who served as the staff director of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Other researchers believe the FBI has never acknowledged the full extent of its investigation into King’s murder or made public all of its massive “MURKIN’’ file, which stands for the “murder of King.’’ Lamar Waldron, the coauthor of Legacy of Secrecy, said the identities of white supremacists and organized crime figures interviewed by the FBI about the assassination have come to light in some available documents, but all the files about those individuals have not. They include white supremacist leader Joseph Milteer, New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, and top organized crime figure Johnny Roselli - all three of whom were also investigated for their possible role in the assassination of President Kennedy. Indeed, some believe those three killed everyone assassinated in the 1960s, including the Easter Bunny. Waldron, Wexler, and others believe records related to King could shed light on other civil rights killings. “We can cross-reference their files in a way they never could back then,’’ Wexler said.

Conspiracy nuts aside, there is no doubt much information that has not been released that would be helpful. There is also the notorious record of FBI spying on King’s private activities, a history that also remains mostly secret. “I hope I am not biased, but I believe there was a deliberate, systematic effort on the part of [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover to destroy Martin Luther King, Jr.,’’ said Rep. Lewis, who is expected to cosponsor Kerry’s bill in the House. While some are concerned that the private revelations could embarrass King’s family or tarnish his legacy, Lewis and Kerry believe releasing the records could help prevent future abuses.“I want his personal history preserved and examined,’’ Kerry said. Of course he does: there's nothing about his screwing around to be found in King's FBI files. I'm guessing Kerry wouldn't be quite so quick to have the FBI release their 'John Kerry' file.

The MLK Records Review Board, according to the Kerry bill, would have jurisdiction over “all records - public and private - related to the life and death of King, including any investigations or inquiries in federal, state, or local agencies.’’ The board could also request that the Attorney General issue subpoenas “to compel testimony or records and require agencies to account for any previous or current destruction of related records.’’

Some researchers worry that some records may have been destroyed because the FBI was not required to keep them, and they might have contained revelations embarrassing to the bureau. Still, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee [D, Tex.], who was a staff member on the assassinations committee, said “fresh looks at [available] documents by fresh researchers may be valuable for the FBI.’’ The bureau is not able to reinvestigate these cases because it has too many pressing current missions, she said.

Thomas Moore is among the few family members to see the murder case of a loved one reopened decades after the height of the civil rights movement. But that was only after a journalist obtained previously unreleased federal and state records about the killing of his brother, Charles. “It wasn’t until 2005 that I was able to receive the unredacted FBI files,’’ Moore said. And it was not until this month, he added, that he obtained the Mississippi autopsy photos. As for countless other cases, Moore said he believes “there is still a lot of information out there. It should have been released a long time ago.’’

For once, John Kerry is right, and his legislation should be passed while there is still time to - possibly - prosecute those still living who perpetrated the violence all those years ago.

copyright 2010 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lot to 'Overcome'

AND YOU THINK YOUR JOB SUCKS? Imagine working in a meat-packing plant in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Health care there meant you came home with all ten fingers and toes in tact. It was also the origin of George Jefferson's favorite term of endearment for his neighbors in both Queens and Manhattan.

I had initially planned on writing this on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s actual birthday, January 15th. Then, I intended it to be on the national holiday on Monday. As you can see, it's a bit late. Part of it has to do with another story that came up involving King, which I'll write about later. But, better late than never, here it is.

The fact that the United States has an African-American President initially led some people to invent a word: "post-racial". Meaning, with Obama's election, this country has become post-racial, beyond race. Uh, not quite. There's the new book that quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, Nev.] as saying that America was ready for a President like Barack Obama who is black but "light-skinned" and speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." If you didn't like that one, we have disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich [D] saying in an interview that he was "blacker than Obama" -- a comment that Blago later called "stupid, stupid, stupid."

I'm guessing he considered it stupid because there was a 'live' microphone, not because he thought what he said was wrong. So, we're hardly post-racial. Still, it is worth noting how far we have indeed come. It was not that very long ago, historically speaking, that this country was quite a different place when it came to racial issues. Indeed, I'm old enough to remember the outcry that resulted in the mere idea of giving King his own holiday. In honor of that progress, here is a look at some facts about racism and ethnic intolerance. Some trivial, some serious as hell.

First, we have the origins of the word "Honky". Growing up myself, my first introduction to the word was on Good Times...or maybe it was The Jeffersons. No, it must've been All in the Family. Well, anyway, some 35 years later, I was no closer to discovering its origins in 2010 until the other day. It seems the word probably originated in Chicago. It seems to come from the word "bohunk," used to describe Bohemians, Hungarians and other Eastern European immigrants. African American workers in Chicago's South Side meat packing plants are believed to have referred to their white co-workers as "hunkies," which later became "honkies" to refer to all whites. Now you know.

Next, the way the media has portrayed race has changed dramatically. 102 years before we elected an African American to the White House, the Atlanta Constitution described in a 1906 article how a white girl suffered a fatal heart attack after dreaming that a "big negro" with a knife was trying to kill her. The Constitution seemed to blame the fictional black man, headlining the story: "Negro, Seen in Dream, Causes Death of Girl." And it wasn't just in the south, either. Check out an article from 1921 in the New York Times . The article reported that South Africa's black population, which outnumbered whites 5-to-1, was pushing for political power. Now, some would view that as democracy in action. The Times saw it differently with this headline: "Negroes a Problem in South Africa."

You needn't even go that far back. A mere 55 years ago, the Chicago Tribune covered the viewing - attended by about 40,000 proceeding past the casket - of lynching victim Emmet Till. The youngster's body had been returned from Mississippi to Chicago. In the article, the Tribune suggested that this key civil rights event might be a Marxist hoax. The article's third and fourth paragraphs described communists distributing "inflammatory literature" outside the church. The fifth and sixth paragraphs quoted a Mississippi sheriff who questioned whether the body was even Till's and said that "the whole thing looks like a deal made up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."

Of course, it was not just the print media by a long-shot. Hollywood's portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities are infamous by this point. That wholesome company, Disney, was perhaps one of the worst perpetrators. There's the 1946 feature film Song of the South [above] mercifully remains out of circulation because of the offense it would give to African Americans [not to mention whites, and anyone else whose life does not resemble an outtake from Gone With the Wind]. Then there's the 1933 cartoon short Three Little Pigs featured the big, bad wolf dressed as a Jewish peddler. Really, seriously. A Jewish peddler. 1933. Years later, and I do mean years after complaints, the cartoon was revised so that the wolf posed as a Fuller Brush salesman. No word yet on how many Fuller Brush men protested after that.

Then we have our government. Would you believe that 56 years ago there was actually a federal program called - officially, mind you - "Operation Wetback"?! It was conducted in 1954 to drive illegal immigrants from the American Southwest. Federal officials claimed that 1.3 million people were deported or compelled to flee. The name for the operation, by the way, came from Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing, a former West Point classmate of then-President Dwight Eisenhower who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Perhaps the strangest - just strange, outside of the fact that it was racist - was the Life magazine article [above] headlined "How to tell Japs from the Chinese", which came out shortly after Pearl Harbor. The Chinese, who were U.S. allies, found themselves mistaken for Japanese on American streets and treated rudely by angry Americans. So, to the rescue came Life , whose publisher Henry Luce was a major Sinophile. Life even provided useful annotated photos - presumably so that you could take them with you, should you encounter someone of Asian descent on the street. According to Life, the Chinese had "parchment yellow complexion." The Japanese had "earthy yellow complexion." The Chinese were "tall and slender." The Japanese were "short and squat." In their facial expressions, the Chinese "wear the rational calm of tolerant realists," while Japanese show the "humorless intensity of ruthless mystics." A person from China "never has rosy cheeks." A Japanese person has "sometimes rosy cheeks." The apparent message: if you are planning to randomly attack the first Asian you encounter, please beat the one with the rosy cheeks. Luce no doubt figured such advice would help us win the war.

Somehow, we won anyway.

copyright 2010 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Clinton Tapes - Wrestling History By Taylor Branch

I was a huge supporter of Bill Clinton when he ran for President in 1992. I volunteered for the campaign and even went to the inauguration [albeit about a quarter mile from where he delivered his address]. I continued to support him in 1996, although the drip-drip-drip of scandal over the first four years [Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, Vince Foster] gave me pause. Watching Chief of Staff Leon Panetta on election night, prior to Clinton's acceptance speech to the large crowd in Little Rock, I was struck at the time by something Panetta said. He let on that was exhausted and needed a break. I got the definite feeling that he was essentially saying, "Look, somehow I made it through without this guy [Clinton] doing something enormously stupid, probably with a dame. I'm gettin' outta Dodge before Bubba gets caught."

After Lewinsky, I was done with Clinton. Like most Americans, I felt lied to and I'd had enough of his nonsense. It was a grave disappointment. Over the years, my opinion of Clinton has softened a bit - although I still think he should've called his autobiography You Can't Call it Cheating, 'Cause She Reminds Me of You. I was very interested, then, when one of my favorite historians - Taylor Branch - announced that he and Clinton had discreetly conducted taped interviews throughout Clinton's presidency - from 1993-2001. There were 77 sessions in all, and Branch was coming out with a book on the experience.

Branch had met both Clintons - Bill and Hillary - while working Texas for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. After that debacle, Branch lost touch with the Clintons, although he followed his political career, and even traveled to Little Rock on election night to watch the President-elect's acceptance speech. Six days after Election Day 1992, then, Branch was stunned to read an interview with the President-elect in the Baltimore Sun. In the interview, Clinton was saying he was said that thousands of election night celebrants had come to Little Rock and gone without his knowledge. "He [Clinton] said, for instance, that Baltimore novelist Taylor Branch, a long-time friend, had come and gone 'and I never saw him'." Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, Branch was caught off guard when he was contacted by the transition office of President-elect Clinton and told that the President-elect wished to see Branch and his wife, Christy. The meeting took place at a reception on December 7, 1992, held at the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. When the Clintons arrived, they struck up a conversation with Branch as if they'd just seen him the day before, as opposed to 20 years earlier.

From that encounter came a request in early 1993 from the transition office asking Branch if he would come to Washington to assist with the final preparations on the Inaugural Address. Branch and his wife attended the Inauguration [their seats were a helluva lot better than mine] and even spent some time with the Clintons back at the White House that evening. Now officially an FOB [Friend of Bill], Branch was contacted again in June 1993 by the White House Social Office inviting he and Christy to a large formal dinner at the White House. There, an usher told them that the Clintons wished to see them upstairs. Branch figured there would be a smaller group to which they were being invited, so he was surprised to find the President alone. Clinton wasted no time, telling Branch he needed "an Arthur Schlesinger" to help him. He wanted to put an in-house scholar on staff, as JFK did with Schlesinger.

Branch demurred, as he was still in the middle of writing his Civil Rights Era trilogy/Martin Luther King biography [Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge]. He agreed, however, to help Clinton work on coming up with a system to keep an accurate historical record. Over the summer, Clinton and Branch finalized the decision to hold taped interview sessions - monthly, if possible. The first was held October 17, 1993, the last on January 8, 2001. The arrangement had to be kept secret, as by that point Whitewater was heating up and anything Clinton touched was liable to be subpoenaed. Clinton would not be able to be candid on the tapes if he thought they would be released while he was still President. The only people who knew of the project where Clinton, Hillary, Taylor, Christy, Chelsea Clinton, Clinton's social secretary and Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall. It was agreed that Clinton would keep possession of the tapes, with Branch taking notes and dictating those notes into a summary, which he then provided to Clinton. It was agreed that any issue that might fall within the realm of a special prosecutor would be recorded on separate tapes in the event that Kendall needed to comply with any court order dealing with Clinton's words/thoughts/notes on Whitewater.

After 77 sessions, Clinton used the tapes in the writing of his autobiography, My Life. There is an arrangement for them to be stored at the Clinton Presidential Library for eventual release. Branch himself is anxious to hear them, as he never has and wants to see how accurate he was in recapturing the sessions in his notes. The Clinton Tapes - Wrestling History, then, is not a transcript of those tapes. Instead, it is the story of how they came about, what it was like during eight years of recordings, and a recreation of the conversations from the notes Branch took.

Ordinarily, I'd be weary of such a book. Without the actual tapes, one could argue, how could an author possibly write a book called The Clinton Tapes? Well, if the author was anyone other than Taylor Branch, I'd agree. Branch, however, is one of the most gifted historians of our era. He bona fides are beyond reproach - as anyone who has read his trilogy can attest. So, I decided to give Clinton another chance.

As you can imagine, the book presents a positive side of Clinton. Branch, after all, is a friend. But there are other sides of Clinton presented as well. The President comes off as....well, human. In a positive way [not in the way of, 'well, if you could get a blow-job from an intern, wouldn't you?!' kind of human]. The result is an engaging, brilliant piece of contemporary history. While certainly historians will treasure the tapes themselves when they are eventually released, in the meantime we have Branch's book to analyze the Clinton years.

Clinton is funny, angry, tired, wired, frantic, and mellow. The goal - to capture the history of his presidency "at the time" - is achieved brilliantly. Branch is particularly gifted in his writing on the Lewinsky scandal. For his part, Branch - prior to Clinton's admission - did not believe the story. He felt that there were probably transgressions in Clinton's marriage in the past, but that none of these had occurred since being elected President. In hindsight - after Clinton's admission - he was able to see small changes in Clinton's behavior at the time, but nothing that would have led him to believe Clinton had had an affair. Reading about that experience alone is worth the price of the book.

Finally, there is a story at the end of the book that - having read the whole book - I think captures Clinton perhaps as close as possible to his "true" self. It is July 6, 2004, and Clinton's My Life has been published. Clinton invited Branch to a party celebrating the event. Getting Branch alone, Clinton turned very solemn and said, "I have something for you." It was an envelope with a check for $50,000, made out to Branch. Clinton continued: "Now, I'm giving out bonuses to everybody who was involved in the book, and there couldn't have been a book without you. I couldn't get you to ghostwrite it for me. You've turned down money, but I want you to have this. I'm the same person I was when you and I were in Texas together and neither one of us had a pot to piss in. And you've spent all this time writing about Martin Luther King, and sometimes I wish I had done that myself. But you still don't have a pot to piss in. I've never had any money, and now I do, and frankly the only reason I want some is to share it with people who are my friends and are doing good."

I still think what Clinton did in the Lewinsky case was a fiasco. I still think he harmed the presidency and his country. But he had a more-than-willing-partner in that: the Republicans and the Right, who were clearly out to get him from Day 1. By bringing the impeachment charges on the Lewinsky issue, Republicans severely hampered Clinton's abilities to govern. The 9/11 Report, in fact, notes that one of the best chances to get Osama bin Laden was scrapped because Clinton feared it would be viewed as a political wag-the-dog move.

All that being said, Branch's book has given me a greater appreciate for all that Clinton did. It reminded me what it was that so attracted me to him as a candidate 18 years ago. It also shed some light on the President's relationship with Hillary. At the time, I believed that Hillary had known all along that Clinton had had an affair with Lewinsky and that she and Bill simply had an 'arrangement'. Branch's writings make it clear that, in fact, Hillary was stunned, deeply hurt and changed by the event. As were we all.

For those who hate Clinton, Branch's book will not change their minds. But for those - like me - who grew ambivalent about the 42nd President of the United States after scandal, after scandal, the book is a great way to get reacquainted with the Comeback Kid from Arkansas.

copyright 2010 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.