Blog of Rights

The FBI's War against Dr. King Revisited

By Steve Gosset, ACLU at 10:17am

Over the course of two decades, the FBI went to war against Dr. Martin Luther King, even though the civil rights leader never knew he was under attack.

As Dr. King’s political power, stature and influence grew, the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, grew increasingly obsessed with King. In turn, they used various tactics in the ‘50s and ‘60s to try and discredit him, such as mounting a full-court press to portray him as a Communist provocateur, attempting to disrupt tributes after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and repeatedly bugging his hotel rooms.

The FBI so viewed Dr. King as a threat that they even tried to covertly besmirch his reputation after his assassination, when Congress in 1969 first considered making his birthday a national holiday.

These shameful actions were detailed in a 2002 ACLU report that highlighted one of the sorriest chapters in FBI history, in order to bring attention to the dangers of domestic spying.

“His ‘crime’ was to challenge the laws enforcing segregation and preventing the right to vote,” the report said. “His ‘crime’ was to protest the Vietnam war and to denounce policies that did not address widespread poverty in this country.”

After a Senate committee in 1976 exposed the FBI’s campaign against King, the Justice Department issued a set of guidelines that limited the scope of acceptable surveillance and infiltration of religious and political organizations.

Regrettably, the attacks on 9/11 sent the government spiraling away from such protections. No doubt, Hoover would have been the cheerleader-in-chief for the Patriot Act. It would have made his job so much easier.

Under the Patriot Act, law enforcement can obtain orders to secretly enter your home without telling you that a warrant was issued, even in ordinary criminal cases. It allows you to be labeled a terrorist if you belong to an activist group. It allows the government to ask for a wiretap without telling a judge who is being monitored and why. And it enables the FBI to force libraries, Internet service providers and others to provide “tangible things” ostensibly tied to a terrorism probe. But the person or entity can never disclose they received such a demand from the FBI.

Of course, Hoover did a lot of things like that without telling anyone. The law was an afterthought. No more. Now the law is the problem.

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