MLK, Spying, and the “Urgency of the Moment”

Last week, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 85th birthday in an America that, in myriad ways, is a freer, fairer, and more just nation than the one he knew. Today, we pause to remember the man for daring to dream of equality of personhood and opportunity; for having the courage to transform what he called “the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”; and — as President Obama put it so lyrically last year — for giving a “mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions” and offering a “salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.”

The example of Dr. King’s life, and the progress it inspired, is one with which we must continuously reengage in order to sustain and advance his work.

But the lessons of Dr. King’s life and legacy don’t stop there, and President Obama’s announcement last week that he will seek to end the government’s collection of Americans’ phone records is a welcome first step toward honoring another important but oft-forgotten part of Dr. King’s story: our government’s obsessive campaign of surveillance of his private life, as part of the FBI’s shameful COINTELPRO program.

That experience shows us how threatening unchecked government surveillance powers are to our democracy — and to our future Dr. Kings — and makes clear the imperative to put an end to the abusive NSA practices we’ve learned about in the past seven months. And the president acknowledged that danger in his speech: “Indeed, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. King, who were spied on by their own government.”

A few months ago, I wrote about that campaign and its connection to the vast domestic spying on ordinary Americans undertaken by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI:

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. But it also sought to compile a dossier of embarrassing information about King’s private sex life that the government could (and did) employ to discredit King and obstruct his political efforts.

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.”

Back then, it took the Church Committee to reveal that American “intelligence agencies ha[d] regularly collected information about personal and political activities irrelevant to any legitimate government interest,” precipitating a national effort to restore to Americans the full extent of privacy guaranteed by the Constitution. But the Church Committee’s report did not spring from a vacuum: It was only possible because of some extraordinary feats of democratic citizenship, and a reporter’s dogged request for documents under a new statute called the Freedom of Information Act.

Seven months ago, another bold act — Edward Snowden’s — made plain to Americans that domestic spying on the most intimate details of our lives is no bygone piece of history. In the time since Snowden’s initial revelations, the ACLU has accelerated its long-running fight on behalf of all Americans to end the domestic surveillance state. In the wake of the president’s speech, that fight continues in both Congress and the courts.

Just more than 50 years ago, at a time of intense public debate and facing the tangible prospect of seismic political change, a 34-year-old Dr. King stood on the National Mall and warned Americans that “it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Today, amidst another remarkable debate about the fabric of the American political project that presents us with the opportunity for change, the nation should remember these words in particular — among the many that made Dr. King one of our country’s most inspiring catalysts of progress. 

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Vicki B.

That's not ALL that's shameless about the FBI. Or maybe I shouldn't say so, b/c I'm still convinced they read AND can discover the identity of those who wrote it even if I use the 'anonymous' term.

They were a special KIND of terrible under the Bush Administration and before anyone loses their top, I VOTED for the man. Which is one reason I'm so god-blasted furious with the entire administration. I have no understanding how anybody who is claiming they DIDN'T vote for President Obama can be THIS upset with him, but I voted for Bush and that's why I'm positively FURIOUS at him.

I think he had someone in the FBI fired when they even hinted at answers to questions from September 11 victims' family members' questions.
I only know this years AFTER it happened. When it first occurred I had no idea why the guy was suddenly gone. And what he hinted at - there was no freakin' WAY I was going to deduce from that statement, "real torture, detainment at black sites, interrogation under water."
Waterboarding someone and asking them questions AND expecting a goddam ANSWER from them while they're still in the cloth-over-head-water-in-the-upper-airway mode is stupid, and what I call interrogation under water. For the detained person, not the interrogator.

But on a more direct note, I heard that someone in the FBI tried to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide and that this person mounted a full-out bigotry-driven effort to undermine and discredit him. And today there's a building named after the bigot in question: It's called the J. Edgar Hoover building.
Incidentally Bush has a room in the White House named after him. That's right. Approve of the torture of people in the name of my dead relative and thousands of others, get a freakin' room in the WHITE House named after you.
Help with finding Osama bin Laden and don't get ANYthing. Not even a statue in your honor.

That's bullshit plain and simple, and it makes me angry. There should be a room in the White House named after President Obama b/c he helped with finding Osama bin Laden.
End of story.


I find that most on-line newspapers will no longer allow anonymous posts, isn't that a violation of our Freedom of Speech? Huffington Post for one, and I am sure there are others.


i wonder what all the innocent 'collateral damage' victims' survivors would think about your monumental room dedicated to the drone master? while you do go on and on about bush, who admittedly is one of the most diabolical psychopaths of all time, you seem to be quite blind or ignorant of how his successor has been able to surpass him in so many arenas. it is quite ironic that obama would attempt to steal mlk's luster in the area of his being spied on and persecuted by the fbi when the only reason he is speaking at all about nsa concerns is because snowden left him no choice. otherwise, we wouldn't even be aware of the extent of his own spying program, the largest in history, and the most insidious ever imagined. way to go, (self-proclaimed) mlk protege! king must be turning over at warp speed!


United States should be a model to the world when it comes to human rights but apparently it falls short of it. Some European countries are actually better.

I doubt about Obama's statement posted in the MLK's photo if that is sincere.


There is either a particular anti-multicutural dislike among the secret service agents , to not say KKK, or severe incompetent individuals among the NSA considering the large amount of rightwing extremism and white terrorists they simply missed. Not to mention that the the dimension, the far-reach and costs of such surveillance programs are not justifying, nor speaking for the little real result of terror prevention.Unless, it is all certainly aimed at social / political economic control and intellectual control and Industry espionages. What it is mainly. Best,


Can FBI files on citizens that do not have any legal basis for being obtained in the first place be released to public? I read the files on MLK will be released in 2027 and that shouldn't be allowed to happen.

I'd say that is contempt of court - if you don't have an order allowing wire tapping or collecting private information those records should be destroyed and the individuals involved it collecting the information prosecuted.

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