What many remember Solomon Lightfoot Michaux for was his captivating sermons, his powerful radio ministry, as well as, his activist ministry that assisted the poor and homeless.
Born in Buckroe Beach, Virginia into a devout family of Baptists in 1884, the black evangelist with light skin and straight hair, grew up in Newport News, Virginia where he spent his childhood in local public schools while helping his family’s seafood business.
Having received the call to preach, Michaux began his Church of God ministry in 1917 and would become famous for a radio show, “The Radio Church of God,” in 1929. Within two decades, he became the nation’s first minister (black or white) to have his own weekly television show.
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He got a large media following while stressing that the only salvation for the immoral and wicked practices of western religion was the Church of God. His sermons condemned liquor, slot machines, prostitutes, dancing, jazz music, and the theory of evolution, and his services to the poor were highly praised, writes BlackPast.
But what many did not know was that Michaux colluded with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to shape public opinion against civil rights leader, Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and cast doubt upon King’s religious commitments and activities.
This was contained in a paper, written by Prof. Lerone A. Martin and published online in June 2018 in the Religion and American Culture journal.
According to Martin, the African-American evangelist worked with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to publicly “discredit” King.
Born in 1929, King, an American Baptist minister was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through to 1968. King had, in the year in which he died, expressed worry over the slow pace of civil rights in America and the rise in criticism from other African-American leaders. He had embarked on a series of demonstrations and gone through jail, apart from being threatened with death.
It was already known that Michaux was a critic of King, but what until recently was hidden was the fact that Michaux used his publicity and status in the ministry to publicly “scandalize King as a communist and defend the Bureau against King’s criticisms.”
Martin, from the Washington University in St. Louis, uncovered this while working on a book on religious broadcasters. He said he obtained 230 pages of FBI files on Michaux and realised that Hoover would send the preacher memos full of praise, but there was more to it.
“He [Michaux] was what the F.B.I. at the time called a special correspondent, which meant that he was someone the F.B.I. reached out to and had very cordial relationships with, and very cooperative relationships with for the majority of his broadcasting career. That included, of course, his cooperation with the F.B.I. to discredit Martin Luther King,” an article in The New York Times in April 2018 said.
“…So for example, the F.B.I. would pass along some information to him on King about, perhaps, King being a communist, and then Michaux would, of course, scrub that intelligence and present it in some of his broadcasts or sermons. In all, what he does is he colludes with the F.B.I. to preach sermons that discredit Martin Luther King and also even engage in a protest of Martin Luther King that was cleared by the F.B.I,” the article added.
Influenced by the FBI, Michaux would preach against the famous March on Washington for jobs and freedom and would criticize King’s religious commitments. He further said that King’s dream would be realized by ensuring the Christian conversion of individuals in America rather than by protesting and marching.
When King questioned the FBI and how committed it is to racial justice and equality, Michaux came to the latter’s defense. In an open letter released to media organisations, Michaux praised the FBI, saying that it was working to “ensure the morality of the nation.”
That was not all; in 1965, Michaux, with the help of the FBI, organized about 100 of his congregation and protested in Baltimore against King, with signs such as “Communist termites are inside” and “God save America.”
King had then ended his Selma march and was in Baltimore with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, making summer plans.
“Elder” Michaux, as he was later called, would pass away on October 20, 1969, in Washington, two months after suffering a stroke.
His relationship with the FBI, according to Martin’s paper, “offers a window into the overlooked religious dimensions of the FBI’s opposition to King, even as it highlights how black clergy articulated and followed competing ideologies of black liberation during the civil rights movement.”