Martin Luther King, Jr. is an unparalleled figure in the civil rights movement, but less well-known are the civil liberties lessons of his life and activism.
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As King came to national prominence half a century ago, the pre-digital technology of the era did not stop the federal government from prying into his private life with the goal of undermining his civil rights work.
King’s heroic advocacy of equality and opposition to the war in Vietnam put him on all kinds of government watchlists. The FBI called him the “most dangerous Negro of the future of this nation,” assessing him in terms that sound more reminiscent of a terror threat than a pastor leading nonviolent protests against institutionalized racism.
That “most dangerous” phrase is from an FBI memo penned immediately after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That memo also concluded that “it may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proof or definitely conclusive evidence.” In other words, the FBI had decided that King was a dangerous communist, and it was determined to proceed with illegal efforts to discredit his movement regardless of the fact that there was no actual proof to justify its actions.
The agency discussed “how best to carry on our investigation [of King] to produce the desired results without embarrassment to the Bureau,” including “the avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.”
And a few months after the dream speech, the FBI began, in Director J. Edgar Hoover’s words, to “intensify our coverage of communist influence on the Negro.” That took the form of wiretapping King’s phones and bugging his hotel rooms. The agency further disgraced itself by sending King a letter trying to badger him into suicide and harassing King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, in an attempt push her towards divorce.
The NSA spied on King, too, under a program called Minaret. Originally introduced as a way to keep track of terrorists and drug traffickers, Minaret evolved into a project for monitoring Vietnam War critics like King.
This appalling civil liberties history demands attention today more than ever. Indeed, as Alvaro M. Bedoya argues in an excellent piece at Slate today, “We now find ourselves in a new surveillance debate—and the lessons of the King scandal should weigh heavy on our minds.”
Bedoya documents a pattern of federal surveillance being unequally applied to racial and ideological minorities in America—Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, and Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11. Mass spying is an affront to all Americans’ right to privacy, but as King’s story demonstrates, it’s far more likely to victimize some types of people:
There is a myth in this country that in a world where everyone is watched, everyone is watched equally. It’s as if an old and racist J. Edgar Hoover has been replaced by the race-blind magic of computers, mathematicians, and Big Data. The truth is more uncomfortable. Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance; Hoover was no aberration. And while racism has played its ugly part, the justification for this monitoring was the same we hear today: national security.
The way our government spied on MLK and other civil rights leaders must not be forgotten as we continue the modern surveillance debate.
The fears that we civil libertarians raise are based in a concrete history of government abuse that targeted those who challenged its status quo at home and abroad. And in the 50 years since MLK was wiretapped, we only have more reason to believe that similar abuses continue.