As the nation observes the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic march in Selma, Alabama (if you haven’t seen the Oscar-nominated Selma yet, I highly recommend it), it’s worth remembering how our government viewed the civil rights hero, particularly within the context of today’s debate over civil liberties vs. national security.
On MLK Day 2014, I wrote:
Long before Snowden revealed the NSA’s secret PRISM program, there was Minaret. The Guardian reports, “The National Security Agency secretly tapped into the overseas phone calls of prominent critics of the Vietnam War, including Martin Luther King… (The NSA) went to great lengths to keep its activities, known as operation Minaret, from public view… Minaret was initially intended for drug traffickers and terrorist suspects, but was twisted, at the request of the White House, to become a tool for tracking legitimate political activities of war protesters…”
Why, or how, could the government so intentionally abuse King? Because they began to view him as an enemy of the state. As FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, “Based on King’s recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.”
Once such a threshold is crossed in the minds of government officials, they often justify throwing citizens’ constitutional protections out the window. Anything becomes necessary to “keep us safe.”
There is a debate today over the balance between security and liberty. Security advocates–including this president–argue that the keeping America safe should almost always take precedent over any concerns about the loss of privacy or constitutional rights.
Our government today basically believes it can do anything it pleases so long as national security is the objective.
The same was true in King’s time.
The ACLU’s Brett Max Kaufman noted in 2013 (emphasis mine):
The FBI viewed no space as off limits. The agency consistently bugged King’s hotel rooms to monitor his planning of the 1963 March on Washington and to keep tabs on his strategic partnerships with other civil-rights leaders…
King was not alone on the government’s long list of targets; he shared marquee billing with boxer Muhammed Ali, humorist Art Buchwald, author Norman Mailer, and even Senator Howard Baker. But the greater scandal was that — as the Church Committee revealed in 1976 — these big names appeared alongside more than one million other Americans, including half a million so-called “subversives.”
Today, even members of Congress have been victims of their government’s probing eyes and ears. Some authoritarian-leaning members have even encouraged this, worried that members of Congress might be talking to al-Qaeda. I’m not kidding.
President Obama will visit Selma on Saturday for the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march, where he will reportedly speak on civil rights. But America’s first black president has presided over the growth of a surveillance state that sees no constitutional limits on its own power. The president says we should essentially trust our government not to abuse that power.
King was a victim of precisely the kind of domestic spying on U.S. citizens this president justifies today.
I wrote in January 2014:
The potential for abuse that President Obama and the NSA’s defenders promise won’t happen did happen to King. It happened long before we had the technology to amass everyone’s private information. It happened during a time when the President was not openly flouting the Constitution.
To say that the abuse the NSA and FBI dealt King could not happen again is to ignore history and human nature. Surrendering trust to government beyond what the Constitution allows is something common sense should always forbid.
As we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. for his civil rights triumphs, let us also remember his civil liberties lessons. They remain instructive, today more than ever.