FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union today released a case study on the grim smear campaign waged by the government against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a study that comes on the heels of recent media reports that the Attorney General is considering relaxing guidelines on domestic spying put in place after the persecution of Dr. King and other political dissenters in the 1950s and 1960s.
"J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to ruin Dr. King is one of the most shameful chapters in modern American history," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office. "If Attorney General Ashcroft relaxes the restrictions against domestic political spying - restrictions put in place specifically because of the federal abuse of Dr. King - he will run the clear risk of allowing the same inexcusable behavior to happen again and will have failed to do anything to make our nation any safer."
"As we celebrate the first Martin Luther King Day since the terrorist attacks on September 11, it's important to remember such government excess in past times of national crisis," Murphy added.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation began its smear campaign against Dr. King in the late 1950s under a secretive program entitled "Racial Matters." Over the next decade, the FBI engaged in concerted and illegal harassment and surveillance of Dr. King and other luminaries in the growing civil rights movement. The crusade to discredit Dr. King continued even after his death. Throughout this campaign, no credible evidence of wrongdoing existed to justify the FBI's activities.
In response to revelations exposed by the 1976 Church Committee and other congressional investigations into governmental abuse, the Justice Department implemented a series of "Attorney General Guidelines" that limit the scope of acceptable surveillance and infiltration of religious and political organizations. However, late last year, the media reported that Attorney General Ashcroft is seriously weighing a loosening of these regulations, a move that would invite further government abuse on par with the smear campaign against Dr. King, the ACLU said.
"Dr. King's legacy is not just the gains made toward political and social equality," said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel who wrote the King report. "His legacy is also an important reminder of the potential for abuse when a government with too long a leash seeks to silence voices of dissent."
"If there is one lesson to be learned from this report," Murphy added, "it is that the consequences to the free speech rights of all Americans will be grave if the crucial Attorney General Guidelines are relaxed."