East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 10

J. Edgar and King

The three men took their time getting back into the living room.

Their glasses were refilled.

They relaxed and waited for Dury to finish what he'd started.

"Reminds me of high school sports," Keith said. "I was always on that side. My athletic skills were lacking. Kids like me were always on that side."

"I recall it. Luckily I was on this side. I wasn't a bad athlete. I wasn't going out for a school team," Gary said.

"You were saying," Gary said. "King soared. I heard the 'I Have a Dream Speech.' Probably everyone has."

"We never talked about it. Usually we talked about everything we did. I don't recall one of us mentioning it. I was having second thoughts about the police, the politicians, and the papers."

"He was that good?" Gary asked. "I've only heard recordings. He died when I was a kid."

"His words were as powerful as any I ever heard. He was a preacher on a mission. He was telling his truth. There was only one other orator who was in the same league with Martin Luther King. He was in the words at the same time the words were in him. All I could do was listen. When you're a kid and history is happening around you, you can listen or you can ignore it. I began listening.

"Hearing King was a life altering realization for me. I was not a black man and I wasn't invested in civil rights. I was sixteen. The world was huge. None of it had much to do with me. Learning something, even from a Baptist preacher, made me curious. I wondered what else they were lying to us about?"

"We had integration when I was in school," Gary said. "I don't recall it being popular, but I don't recall much about school. I mostly slept through the experience. I was not a good student."

"I asked my father about King. I told him what I'd read. I told him what I heard. My father was an FBI analyst. He knew things. He wasn't able to tell me how he knew them. He qualified comments about people like King with, 'I can't tell you how I know this, and you can't tell anyone I told you. Here's what I know about that.'

"Usually it was questions about a politician who said something stupid or did something dumb. A senator drove himself and a well known prostitute into the Tidal Basin. I had questions."

"Who did that?" Gary asked laughing. "Takes all kind."

"That's outrageous," Keith said. "Prostitutes are people too."

"Yes, and so was the senator. He was a class act from Louisiana. They don't make senators like that any more," Dury said. "My father said, 'The words and deeds speak for themselves.' He'd elaborate if I persisted but I knew stupid when I saw it.

"I was trying to come to my own conclusions, after learning something that wasn't consistent with what I knew. In the case of King, what I knew came from the press and from school. My father shocked me when I asked about King.

"He asked me if I listened to King's words. I told him I had. I heard enough to know he wasn't a troublemaker or a commie. My father told me the best way to discredit someone is call him a troublemaker or a commie. Then he asked, 'What truth did you hear?'

"I had to think about that. I heard him speaking of a future where we'd all get along. I spoke of how powerful it was when he said that one day the color of our skin wouldn't matter. The content of our character was what mattered."

"A noble thought to think we can all get along. I don't even get along with some of my family. I'm not sure people are supposed to get along," Gary said.

"No, and big white cops are allowed to set their German Shepherd on little black kids, because seeing their skin ripped off makes them happy," Keith said.

"People weren't born that hateful, Keith. They were taught to be that way," Gary said. "I didn't hate anyone. The men who gave me the most help were black men who only wanted me to be able to build a good house."

"It's what Dr. King was doing. Trying to build his people a solid house," Dury said.

"As in place in society as equals," Keith said.

"You sure you two were born in the south?"

"I've never bee out of the south," Keith said. "I learned my trade from a black woman. She probably saved my life. She didn't care what color I was. I needed help and she helped me. When she was ready to die, she sent me on to finish learning my lessons along the way."

"OK, we've laid the first brick on Dury's journey to becoming the man he is today. Why don't we put another brick in your past," Gary said.

"That's not the end of King's story. Hoover was obsessed with King."

"Hoover who?" Gary asked.

"My father's boss. J. Edgar ran the FBI. He more than ran it. He controlled every aspect of it. You didn't do anything without Hoover's say so."

"What's an analyst do?" Keith asked.

"Analyzes new information and ties it to people, places, or things. If anything seems suspicious or reeks of danger, he sounds the alarm. Agents see if it might compare to other cases. J. Edgar wanted to know everything about King. My father knew more than he would tell me, until I had more questions. He wouldn't lie to me and if he couldn't answer my question, he'd say, 'That's something a lot of people would like to know."

"I asked what he knew about King. He'd only know through his job. If he lied to me he'd have altered my curiosity. He sensed he couldn't brush me off this time. My questions were too direct. He didn't want to discourage that. He listened and remained silent for a while.

"'Dury,' he said. 'Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will do whatever it takes to advance the movement he leads. It doesn't matter much to him who you are, as long as you are helping to advance civil rights. Yes, he's been arrested, he talks to communists, and he'll lead a march to advance the cause. His life is about civil rights. You might say it's his calling. He speaks for his people. It threatens people who don't share his appetite for equal rights.'

"'It doesn't make him a communist to speak to one and it doesn't make him a criminal because he's been to jail. He does what he needs to do to bring attention to the injustice and the struggle of his people. He believes in what he's doing, but he's only a man. He can only do so much.'

"'What you hear about him comes from a white press. How informed are they about what black people experience? Like so much else in our society, the black man is segregated by the news. Blacks can only be portrayed in certain ways, according to white people. It sounds crazy but it's how it works.'

"'Dr. Martin Luther King has only the power his people give him. He speaks for them. They follow him. It's that simple. Don't believe what you read in the newspapers or hear. Take note of it and gather your own facts. Your best source of truth is your belly. If it feels wrong there, you may be onto something.'

"'There's one thing for certain. No man puts his life on the line for trivial reasons. Not even to make a buck. You've got to be sure your cause is worth the price if you are going to bet your life on it. What I know is, and I can't source this information for you, Dr. King's life is in danger every time he steps outside. There are men hoping to get a shot at him. We know it. He knows it. If he's a commie, Dury, he's a brave commie.'

"'Now you know what I know about Dr. King. Don't quote me if you have coffee with J. Edgar.'"

"Wow!" Keith said. "Your father sounds like a cool dude."

"He was cool. He was smarter than I was and I always knew that. It's why I listened when he spoke to me. He didn't need to tell me things like that, but he knew it was time for me to know the score. He knew King was a player."

"You're pretty smart, Dury," Gary said.

"That's a matter of opinion. I'm a smart attorney. I learned my lessons well. I've gotten experience. I know how the game is played."

"It's mine," Gary said. "I've seen you work. Remember?"

"If you're only smart enough to work, you miss a lot. Work requires memory and repetition in most instances. Living a good life requires an appreciation for time and people. No matter what else you have, it's time and people who make it special. I've had time to think that over too."

"That's a different conversation," Gary said. "I'm still working on having time."

"He asked me to come home to cook for him. That's pretty smart," Keith said. "Little did he know a master chef was cooking his bacon and eggs.."

"Keeping you so you could keep cooking for me was even smarter," Dury said. "I forgot how good a meal with friends can makes me feel."

"See what I'm saying," Gary said. "The man knows his moves and it ain't written in no book. I'd say having a feel for life is smart."

"There's banana pudding waiting to be eaten," Keith said.

"Does banana pudding go well with twelve year old bourbon? I need a drink," Gary said. "I suspect that's not the end of how you became a big time attorney in Charleston?"

"No, that incident woke me up to laws I knew nothing about. It woke up my brain to where I was. It told me that I was only seeing half the picture and it didn't sit well with me to learn we were being manipulated by men with an agenda that had them hiding the truth."

"I definitely need a drink," Gary said, getting out of his seat and stretching. "Hold your place until I come back. Anyone need a refill? Keith, it would be a good time for that banana pudding."

"What was it about Hoover?" Keith asked. "You've mentioned him several times and your father sounds cautious of the man. Why? What was he?"

"Hoover parlayed a job as director of a government agency into a lifetime appointment. J. Edgar Hoover was a piece of work, even before you get to the rumors about him. The FBI was his baby. Hoover wanted to make certain it stayed his. He used FBI agents to investigate everyone. He had something on everyone. When he wanted something or if someone was putting pressure on him, he'd have a private meeting with that person. The troubles went away before the meeting broke up. Hoover would pull out the 'private' information he had on that person, and he'd indicate, 'We wouldn't want this to become public, now would we.'"

"Blackmail?" Keith asked.

"Such an ugly word," Dury said. "Hoover stayed director of the FBI for life, and when he died, and I can't tell you how I know this, his sidekick, Clyde Tolson, either destroyed or moved all the files. Destroyed is more likely. No one would have the balls to threaten senators and presidents but J. Edgar Hoover."

"That's all it takes?" Gary asked.

"Information is the coin of the realm. The man who knows the secrets of powerful men gets whatever he wants," Dury said.

"Who'd a thought bourbon goes with banana pudding? Life is full of surprises," Gary said. "Hoover was evil."

"Some say," Dury said. "He knew how to get job security."

"As quick as you ate that, how do you know it goes with bourbon?" Dury asked.

"I'm pretty smart about some things," Gary replied. "I'll be the first one to get seconds."

"You're starting to pick up a few pounds, Gary. Better ease back on the caloric intake."

"It isn't the calories, Dury. I haven't worked in three months. Give me a couple of weeks of eight hour days with a hammer in my hand, I'll tighten up and get my hard body back. This is the first time in almost forty years that I haven't worked five or six days a week. Retirement ain't for the faint of heart, my man."

"Tell me about it," Dury said. "Retirement is harder than a daily routine. I find myself with time to think about something other than the law or my current cases. A routine is easy. Having time is hard."

"Speaking of thinking, you were talking about Dr. King. Why'd your father wait so long to tell you those things about King? Why'd he say a man doesn't risk his life for trivial things? If you couldn't read about what was really going on in the papers, how'd your father know so much? Who was the other orator in King's league?" Keith asked. "I'd like to know who that is. You left a lot of loose ends."

"I couldn't tell you how my father knew those things then, but I can tell you now. He waited until I was ready to hear what he knew. Kings phones were tapped. His houses and hotel rooms were bugged. J. Edgar Hoover considered King the most dangerous man in America. He was obsessed with King, because he was a man he couldn't control and couldn't understand. Was Hoover a racist? Probably. That would be the easy way to explain his actions."

"What did he do?" Keith asked.

"He lead and planned how to make economic boycotts work. The Montgomery bus boycott was begun by Rosa Parks. Most folks my age know who she was, but they didn't know she was a civil rights activist. He left Atlanta to go to Montgomery to help keep the boycott going. Without black riders the buses were nearly empty. Whites had cars. Blacks road the bus."

"Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus," Keith said.

"She'd done it more than once. Sat in the front," Dury said.

"She did?" Gary said. "I thought she sat down in the front, a white man got on, the bus driver told her to move to the back. She refused. The fight for civil rights had begun."

"She'd taken that bus and sat in that seat several times. One day the driver told her, 'Go to the back of the bus where you belong.' She refused. He called a cop and Rosa Parks was arrested. That's what she set out to do."

"That started the Montgomery bus boycott. It lasted for a year. The bus company gave in because blacks were the only ones that rode the bus. White people had cars. King went to Montgomery because that's where the action was. From that time forward, he was on every racist's hit list."

"My father said, King's just a man. He was a man who took the responsibility of trying to get justice for his people. He met woman in his hotel rooms. Hoover knew that because his men made sure that the hotel put King in the room they'd bugged."

"So your father, being an FBI analyst, knew what King was saying in private?" Gary asked. "He still thought he was a good man?"

"He didn't tell me how he knew what he knew, but my father said he was a good man, but not without his peccadilloes. The FBI tried to blackmail him into committing suicide one time. They had what they said were tapes of King with women other than his wife in hotel rooms making love. King would play. They sent the tapes to his wife. Nothing changed. Those things are common knowledge now, but at the time only the players knew the truth.

"You could only imagine who was on the tapes," Dury said. "There wasn't a lot of talking on them. Hoover knew who it was. Hoover knew everything King did. Hoover had tapes on half the people in Washington in similar situations."

"How long did he run the FBI?" Gary asked.

"Too long. Over forty years. He was the head of a government agency that had no great power of its own. Hoover turned it into his private archives of the misdeeds of powerful men. He stayed in charge of the FBI by having something on everyone and letting them know he had it. 'We wouldn't want this to get out, now would we?'

"There was a story about LBJ taking Hoover on Air Force One with him shortly after he became president. LBJ intended to fire Hoover. He wasn't going to let him control the FBI any longer. LBJ bragged that everyone was afraid of Hoover but he wasn't. When they returned from the trip, Hoover had been appointed director of the FBI for life."

"He had something on Johnson?" Gary asked.

"You'll have to decide. Like most powerful men, Johnson had large appetites. Lady bird wasn't the only bird in his bed."

"Tell me about King risking his life," Keith said. "When did he do that?"

"This had something to do with my decision to become a lawyer. My father told me this in real time. I followed this story every day. Three civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi. They went to visit a burned out black church. They'd been stopped by a local sheriffs' deputy. He turned them over to the Klan. This became a national outrage. Two white and one black college kid dropped off the face of the earth. It was different when it happened to white kids."

"This was a year after the police attacked the black kids in Birmingham. It was another headline news story all over the world. Where were those kids?

"If that wasn't bad enough, the FBI had King on tape saying, "I don't want to go there. I want my life back.' His people said later that he often argued when they had to put their lives in danger. He didn't like it. He was afraid and didn't want to die, but three kids who were in Mississippi to register black people to vote were missing.

"The story goes, Hoover rushes the tape over to Johnson, he's bragging about what a hypocrite King is. Johnson doesn't need to worry about King showing up to stir up trouble in Mississippi. Johnson enjoyed Hoover's gossip, but when he listened to Hoover he got burnt and he let Hoover know who really ran the country. LBJ had things on Hoover now."

"What happened?" Gary asked. "Did they find the kids?"

"The following day King and his people are driving all over Mississippi. Someone calls Johnson to tell him, 'King's in Mississippi and he's going to get his ass shot if you don't do something.'

"Johnson was mad as a hornet and he called Hoover and told him, 'You get your boys down there, Edgar, and protect Martin Luther King. If he's killed, you're responsible. Do you understand, Edgar?'" Dury said, retelling the details his father gave him.

"What happened?" Keith asked. "They killed those kids, didn't they?"

"Hoover refused to send 'his' agents to Mississippi to discourage violence against the voter registration. Now he sent a hundred FBI agents down there. A couple of car loads of agents were assigned to follow King and his people.

"Each time King stopped, he stood on a chair or on some stairs so the people could see he was there, and FBI agents went into cardiac arrest. They knew he was a sitting duck for anyone with a rifle.

"There was no communication between King and the agents. They didn't know what he'd do next. After a few hours of them knowing their careers were on the line if King was shot, King started sending one of his people back to tell the agents where they'd be going next.

"LBJ kept King alive by using the FBI. Johnson didn't know what would happen when King was killed, but he didn't want to find out. The missing kids in Mississippi were enough of a headache. No one knew where those kids were.

"The people that were with King on that trip, wrote about it later. They said King was the one cracking jokes about, 'It's hard to know where the bullet will come from,' he said, as he surveyed his FBI escort a few dozen feet away.

"On his third day in Mississippi King came to where the voter were being registered. This was the appearance he had to make if he hoped to keep the college kids registering voters. He stood where everyone could see him. Most of those kids had never seen Martin Luther King in person. He said he'd come to be with them and let them know how important they were to the civil rights movement and they weren't alone. King did what he knew he had to do and he knew there was no way to stop someone determined to shoot him. He was in Mississippi."

"Courage isn't being fearless. Courage is being afraid and doing what you know has to be done in spite of the danger," Gary said.

"That's insane. Why did they want to kill him?" Keith asked. "He only wanted his people to be free. Why are there so many hateful people?"

"King forced the status quo to change. He let the American people see how brutally blacks were treated. Like me, people were living nice lives. We had no idea blacks were being lynched and terrorized in the south. No one talked about it and no one reported on it. King made it impossible to ignore.

"Earlier in Mississippi, 1955, the year Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Emmett Till was murdered by the Klan. He was a fourteen year old black kid. It was rumored, he'd whistled at a white woman, the wife of a Klansman.

"Emmett came from Chicago and was in Mississippi visiting his momma's people. He went back to Chicago in a crate marked, do not open by order of the Mississippi Coroner.

"Not only did the mother open the crate but she had an open casket to show the world what they'd done to her son. The relatives said the Klan came to the house of the uncle where Emmett was staying. They came in the front door after everyone was in bed. They demanded, 'The little nigger from Chicago.' They dragged him out of the house at gun point. Emmett was beaten to death, weighted down with a factory fan, and dumped into the nearby river. He surfaced a few days later."

Keith's hand covered his mouth, "Those bastards!"

"Emmett was given justice, Mississippi style. A child...," Dury said. "Pictures were taken of his horribly mutilated body. There was an open casket. His mother wanted the world to see what they did to her boy.

"I saw them years later. The original pictures appeared in Jet magazine in 1955. I looked into a lot of civil rights cases while I was in law school. I looked into the lynchings that were documented. Most weren't documented. Mississippi had a knack for terrorizing the 'Negro.'

"Voter registration came to Mississippi. Civil rights workers disappeared. This was a world Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew well.

"King stood where he could be seen, or shot. He said, 'You aren't alone. I'm here to be with you.' Those kids didn't know about Emmett Till. They didn't know their friends were dead. Only the FBI and LBJ knew that," Dury said, pausing.

"Let's take a break," Gary said. "I want to hear how this end, but I need a drink. It's hard to figure people who hate that much. It's hard to know how scary it was for the people on the receiving end."

It grew quiet. The ending wasn't a secret.

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