Today the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a national hero. His “I Have a Dream” speech inspired the world. But that speech also galvanized the FBI into taking unprecedented action against the civil rights leader and undertaking one of its biggest surveillance operations in history.
The Attorney General at the time, Robert F. Kennedy, initially approved the FBI’s wiretap and clandestine microphone campaign against King, back in October 1963. That program lasted until his assassination in April 1968.
The program was initially justified in order to probe King’s suspected, and completely unproven links to the Communist Party. In time, this justification morphed into a crusade to “neutralize” and discredit him.
The impact of the “I Have a Dream” speech on the FBI was first delineated in a 1976 report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities. This was known by its popular nickname, the “Church Committee,” coined after Idaho Democrat Frank Church.
Today, at a time when the United States is absorbing revelations of telephone and e-mail surveillance by the National Security Agency, the FBI’s constant invasive spying on King — which also had no court authorization or oversight — serves as an example of the abuses and dangers of government domestic surveillance, justified in the name of “national security” and “fighting crime.”
“The FBI’s program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed efforts to discredit him with churches, universities and the press,” the report stated.
It collected information about King’s plans and activities “through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal,” according to the report.
William Sullivan, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division during the King surveillance program, told the committee in 1975, “No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.”
Sullivan held the same view as top FBI leaders, including Director J. Edgar Hoover, which he expressed in an August 30, 1963, post-speech memo entitled: “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”
“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech” that “he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan said. “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
The speech was said to “very directly contributes in a very major way to Sullivan characterizing” King as “ ‘the most dangerous Negro’ in the country,” according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, who stated this in an e-mail.
“FBI officials viewed the speech as significantly increasing King’s national stature,” Garrow said, making him “measurably more ‘dangerous’ in the FBI’s view than he’d been prior” to it, Garrow added.
Sullivan’s characterization was “indicative of where the FBI’s top intelligence officers were coming from,” Garrow said. He authored several books on King, including his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Bearing the Cross.”
It wasn’t just Hoover, it was “an organizational culture of like-minded white men,” he explained.
Hoover directed “that we at once intensify our coverage of communist influence on the Negro,” he said in an Oct. 1, 1963, memo to his field offices.
That same month, Robert F. Kennedy approved wiretaps on King’s phone as well as those at the New York and Atlanta offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This installation was ostensibly proposed to look into any communist ties. Not surprisingly, they found nothing – in spite of the unconstitutional surveillance.
In December 1963 the FBI decided to expand its microphone and wiretap effort without even telling Kennedy about it, in “a secret effort to discredit Dr. King and to ‘neutralize’ him as the leader of the civil rights movement,” according to the Church report.
This began back in January 1964 and included installing microphones at all of the hotels King visited.
The first of these hotels was the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. That yielded 19 reels of recorded King conversations, according to the Church report.
Garrow said that “the richly documented history” should always be “a well-remembered reminder that U.S. intelligence agencies should not be trusted to behave properly, or even legally, in the absence of aggressive investigative oversight.”
Sullivan eventually backtracked from his post-speech memo, in his 1975 testimony before the Church panel noting “we had to engage in a lot of nonsense which we ourselves really did not believe in.”
Today, legal opinions from the court that authorizes foreign surveillance, said that tens of thousands of Americans who sent e-mails from 2008 to 2011 had at least some intercepted by the NSA.
The NSA has intercepted as many as 56,000 electronic communications per year from Americans who weren’t even suspected of having links to terrorism.
(Article by M. David; image by #Op309 Media)