MLK Document Friday: “Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them…”
Sometimes I reminisce about the things that shaped the way I am. How did I get my worldview, my politics, my history-geekdom, my document fetish? Well, this weekend seems like as fitting time as any to write about one force that profoundly shaped my life: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
So I hope you’ll indulge me as I write this somewhat autobiographical Document Friday.
The story of King and the Civil Rights Movement turned me onto history. I remember listening to King’s “I have a Dream” speech for the first time. Of course I was affected by King’s rhetoric, how words could lead a movement, and how righteous causes could defeat unrighteous ones. But I also recall being struck by the realization that I was hearing the same thing –pretty much– that the marchers at the reflecting pool had heard in 1963. Straight from the horse’s mouth; my first primary source document.
Fastforward a few years. The history of King and the Civil Rights movement also shaped my healthy distrust of the United States government. I remember exactly what sparked it. It was track seven on Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 debut album (which my mother hated). Near the end of the song “Wake Up,” lead singer Zach de la Rocha reads from a March 1968 FBI memo, “Counterintelligence Program – Black Nationalist-Hate Groups – Racial Intelligence”:
“He [King] could be a real contender for this position [ of 'black messiah'] should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (non-violence) and embrace black nationalism.
Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to
pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them…”
A history teacher confirmed to me that the FBI’s COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program] had indeed existed. I even eventually tracked down the FBI memo that was the source of the quote (which de la Rocha had slightly altered). It was true, the US government had secretly worked to “neutralize” King and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve been a foe of government secrecy ever since.
For an overview on the COINTELPRO against King, read the Church Committee’s 1976 case study. It’s a terrific –if blood-boiling– read. It begins:
From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader. In the words of the man in charge of the FBI’s “war” against Dr. King:
“No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.“
The FBI collected information about Dr. King’s plans and activities through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence-gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal. Wiretaps, which were initially approved by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, were maintained on Dr. King’s home telephone from October 1963 until mid-1965; the SCLC headquarter’s telephones were covered by wiretaps for an even longer period. Phones in the homes and offices of some of Dr. King’s close advisers were also wiretapped. The FBI has acknowledged 16 occasions on which microphones were hidden in Dr. King’s hotel and motel rooms in an “attempt” to obtain information about the “private activities of King and his advisers” for use to “completely discredit” them.
Congressional leaders were warned “off the record” about alleged dangers posed by Reverend King. The FBI responded to Dr. King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by attempting to undermine his reception by foreign heads of state and American ambassadors in the countries that be planned to visit. When Dr. King returned to the United States, steps were taken to reduce support for a huge banquet and a special “day” that were being planned in his honor.
The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness. As early as 1962, Director Hoover penned on an FBI memorandum, “King is no good.” 9 At the August 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King told the country of his dream that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”‘ The FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division described this “demagogic speech” as yet more evidence that Dr. King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” Shortly afterward, Time magazine chose Dr. King as the “Man of the Year,” an honor which elicited Director Hoover’s comment that “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one.” Hoover wrote “astounding” across the memorandum informing him that Dr. King had been granted an audience with the Pope despite the FBI’s efforts to prevent such a meeting. The depth of Director Hoover’s bitterness toward Dr. King, a bitterness which he had effectively communicated to his subordinates in the FBI, was apparent from the FBI’s attempts to sully Dr. King’s reputation long after his death. Plans were made to “brief” congressional leaders in 1969 to prevent the passage of a “Martin Luther King Day.” In 1970, Director Hoover told reporters that Dr. King was the “last one in the world who should ever have received” the Nobel Peace Prize.
The COINTELPRO actions were revealed in 1972 after the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in Pennsylvania and stole classified COINTELPRO documents which were then published in left wing periodicals. If it were not for this leak of stolen government documents, the operations may have remained secret to this day, protected as “national security secrets.”
Dubious FBI surveillance continues. Despite FBI assurances to the contrary, a September 2010 Department of Justice Inspector General’s Report condemned the FBI for spying on peaceful, innocent Americans.
The IG report stated that the FBI had used the guise of terrorism to spy on antiwar and environmental groups, including the Thomas Merton Center, the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), the Catholic Worker, Greenpeace, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The FBI also placed people who were not terrorists on the “terrorist watch list” due to their political views.
As I celebrate all that Martin Luther King, Jr. has done for my country (and myself), I’ll also remember the harmful secret actions taken by the FBI in its attempts to “neutralize” him.