"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Martin Luther King Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice to make America a better place. He wanted America to become a “beloved community” where people of all races would be able to get along and live together. But the “dreamer” would have a nightmare if he knew a Web site bearing his name is being run and maintained by Stormfront, a white supremacy group.
While the opening page of martinlutherking.org may look friendly, its content does not highlight the heroic events in King’s life — such as his involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott, his famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 march on Washington or the Nobel Peace Prize he won. Instead, it aims to debunk King’s character, denying his status as an ordained minister, attacking his academic career, spreading tales of his womanizing and his alleged ties to communist groups. It even attacks his name.
“Well friends, he is not a legitimate reverend, he is not a bona fide Ph.D., and his name isn’t really ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’” reads a section titled “The Truth About Martin Luther King Jr.: Why he fought and who helped in the fight.” It goes on to say, “What’s left? Just a sexual degenerate, an America-hating Communist, and a criminal betrayer of even the interests of his own.”
A link with the even more misleading title, “An Excerpt from ‘The King Holiday and Its Meaning’: Bring the Dream to life for someone you know: An educational tool” goes to a quote from North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms’ congressional testimony, which alleges that “King associated with identified members of the Communist Party of the United States.”
According to Stormfront founder Don Black, the site has been set up to combat the “propaganda” regarding King and his life. “The establishment media tries to turn Martin Luther King into a saint when the opposite is the case,” he says. Black denies direct involvement in martinlutherking.org. But the e-mail address of the site’s webmaster, Vincent Breeding, is on the Stormfront.org domain.
The site uses government documents, such as Helms’ testimony, and information from the FBI campaign against civil rights leaders, as its sources. Civil rights groups and historians fear the appearance of official sources adds to the potential for gullible people to be taken in by half-truths and revisionist versions of history. The site’s existence raises a perpetual Internet controversy: the potential to spread misinformation to a wide audience.
Roger Vickers is the public affairs officer for the Martin Luther King Center and the King family in Atlanta. He is not particularly alarmed by the site’s misrepresentation of King. “None of the information is new,” said Vickers. “Dr. King has just about been criticized for everything.” He said this “misinformation” can be found in white supremacist books.
Black’s response to the controversy over the site is also as old as the larger debate over the First Amendment freedom to distribute misinformation. “The Internet has opened up doors to people who during the Middle Ages would have been called heretics,” said Black. “The Internet provides an alternative news media. It brings our message to millions of people who in the past didn’t have access to it.”
White supremacy groups on the Internet are nothing new. Groups such as the World Church of the Creator have used Web sites for years as a recruiting tool for new members and as a platform for their views.
But the group behind martinlutherking.org is especially Web savvy. According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate groups, Stormfront is at the epicenter of the white supremacy movement on the Web. Founded in 1995 by Black, it is, according to Potok, “the oldest and largest hate site on the Net.”
Black is a former Ku Klux Klansman and long-standing member in the white supremacy movement. (He is now married to former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s ex-wife.) Black went to federal prison after a failed plot to overthrow a left-leaning government on the black island nation of Dominica. “It was in the prison that he learned computers,” said Potok. “Now he is the chief purveyor of hate on the Net.”
Stormfront’s site counter logs over 2 million hits to date. The site has a White Nationalist News Agency, white heritage e-commerce, it has a bilingual version in Spanish and German and it has links to various white supremacy sites. With the addition of the Martin Luther King site, Black seems to be taking a stab at diversity.
Potok says Stormfront’s use of a Martin Luther King domain marks a new trend with hate groups. “Many of these sites appear to be relatively benign,” Potok says, “but it is the opposite of what it is.”
This new practice of mislabeling sites could mean an attempt by hate groups to sneak past Web filters. Or it could be a way to stealthily go after young people whose parents and teachers try to monitor what they read on the Web.
Another example of the insidious mislabeling on the site is a section called “The Death of the Dream: The Day Martin Luther King Was Shot.” This section uses alleged FBI documents purporting to show that the evening after King visited the U.S. Supreme Court to listen in as lawyers argued New York Times vs. Sullivan, he was in hotel room partying with three white women. The site describes “the clinking of glasses and the sounds of illicit sex.” It alleges that King cried out “I’m f–ing for God” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!” The site goes on to say that King brutally beat one of the women.
The practice of cyber-squatting — picking an Internet domain that is the name of another person, group or product — is also nothing new. Some cybersquatters intend to make a profit by selling the domain to the highest bidder. Other groups, such as Stormfront, pick up names to defame.
This practice has caused civil rights groups in particular to go on the offensive. The NAACP bought the names to nigger.com and various other variations of the word. The Anti-Defamation League has bought the domain name for kike.com and other variations of this and other words offensive to Jews. Unfortunately, the King family let their historic name get away.
“We purchased several names related to Dr. King and the King name, but they [Stormfront] beat us to this one,” said Roger Vickers, the public affairs officer for the Martin Luther King Center and the King family in Atlanta.
Vickers said the King family became aware of the site a few months ago and tried to take action, but he admits there is nothing they can do. Since King is a public figure, the copyright laws that sometimes wrestle domain names from cybersquatters don’t apply in this case. And it’s unlikely that Black would sit down with the King family to negotiate.
Historians point to the need for readers to balance information they receive on the Net — or anywhere else — with a healthy level of skepticism. Kerry Taylor, an assistant editor with the Martin Luther King papers project at Stanford University, didn’t know about the site. But he wasn’t surprised by it. “There is a ton of nonsense on the Web and most people can see the difference between stuff that has veracity and information that attacks,” said Taylor.
Taylor called the site’s content “propaganda” and debunked many of the site’s allegations as complete fabrications. “King was absolutely an ordained a minister,” Taylor said. “He was ordained on Feb. 25, 1948.” As for King’s name, Taylor responded, “Does it matter?” But he called the attack on King’s name “interesting.” He said, “King was born Michael Luther King.” But at the urging of his father, his name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr.
Taylor also addressed the most damaging and long-lasting allegation that has dogged King for years, which was that he was a communist. “He spoke consistently against communism,” said Taylor. “He was open to some socialist ideas but as a Christian, he literally thought that communism and Christianity weren’t compatible.”
Black insists the site sheds light on King’s legacy. “Of course all the information on the site is true,” said Black.
Yet even if all of the federal documents on the site are authentic, their veracity is suspect, according to Taylor. That’s because they are the products of an era in which the U.S. government considered the civil rights movement to be a serious threat to national security.
The FBI once considered King “the most dangerous Negro in America.” The agency went on a smear campaign against King and other black leaders and militants in the infamous COINTELPRO operation, which spied on leaders of the civil rights and other political movements in the 1960s and early ’70s. Agents tracked King’s movements and planted negative stories about him in the press. They even encouraged King to commit suicide in an anonymous note to him.
“What you have to understand is that the FBI material was manufactured,” said Taylor. “J. Edgar Hoover was targeting King. So while there is FBI evidence that he was a womanizer, you have to understand where the information is coming from. It has to be weighed very carefully. It was part of a campaign to attack King. It needs to be considered in that light.”
While Vickers said the King family’s lawyers might look into bringing defamation of character charges against the site, he knows this is a long shot. Even sympathizers to King realize the First Amendment and the freedom associated with the Internet will more than likely prevent such litigation.
“Nothing can be done,” said Potok. “Martin Luther King is a public figure who is dead. The chances of this litigation are small at best. You don’t have to like MLK or to be honest about him on a Web site.”
In a sense, martinlutherking.org does shed light on King’s legacy by exposing the tactics of adversaries like J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI when he was alive, and Don Black’s Stormfront since his death.
Lee Hubbard is a San Francisco writer who covers hip-hop culture as well as urban and national affairs.More Lee Hubbard.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)