Happy Martin Luther King Day!


This holiday is as good a time as any to remember how one of our greatest Americans was bugged and harassed by a paranoid, power-mad J. Edgar Hoover, in the name of National Security. From an L.A. Times op-ed today by former attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach:

When Hoover asked for the wiretaps, Bobby consulted me (I was then his deputy) and Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division. Both of us agreed to the tap because we believed a refusal would lend credence to the allegation of communist influence, while permitting the tap, we hoped, would demonstrate the contrary. I think the decision was the right one, under the circumstances. But that doesn't mean that the tap was right. King was suspected of no crime, but the government invaded his privacy until I removed the tap two years later when I became attorney general. It also invaded the privacy of every person he talked to on that phone, not just [Stanley] Levinson.

But what we didn't know during this period was that Hoover was doing a lot more than tapping King's phones. As King's criticism of the FBI continued, and as Hoover became more and more convinced there must be communist influence even though no evidence ever materialized, he determined to discredit and destroy King. He went further, putting bugs in King's hotel bedrooms across the country. (He claimed that Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell had authorized him to use such listening devices in cases involving "national security" back in the 1950s, and that he did not require further permission from the current attorney general, who in any case had no idea that the FBI was doing it.)

The FBI recorded tapes of King conducting extramarital affairs—and later had the tapes mailed to King anonymously, in one case actually encouraging him to commit suicide. Tapes were played for journalists, and the FBI sought to discredit King with foreign leaders, religious leaders, White House personnel and members of Congress. The bureau tried to kill a favorable magazine profile and encouraged one university to withhold an honorary degree.

More here.

King's still-astonishing Letter from Birmingham Jail here. If you haven't read it in a while, it's worth a refresher (I don't recall noticing before his name-checking of "Hungarian freedom-fighters"). And there's really no beating the line, "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."