The FBI is watching you

Steve Hammer

Steve Hammer's Blog

The legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be celebrated on Monday with a holiday that few people will receive off and which will be accompanied by sanctimonious speeches about the greatness of the man.

It's too bad, because King Day is the only holiday on the calendar that celebrates freedom from government repression, one of the supposed reasons for America's founding in the first place.

It's the only holiday which implicitly acknowledges the hundreds of years of genocide and repression which occurred in this country. It's also the only day of the year that celebrates peace instead of commercialism, war or soldiers.

On second thought, no wonder that King Day goes as unnoted as it does.

If Martin King was still alive, he'd be a spry 76 years old, just three years older than Sen. Ted Kennedy and five years younger than President Jimmy Carter. It's not unrealistic to imagine King still being a moral leader, were he allowed to live.

On reflecting on the life and legacy of King, it's worth noting that despite the fact there's a federal holiday celebrating his birth, the federal government itself did everything it could to discredit and destroy King while he was alive.

For those not in the know, here's a brief history lesson. From 1963, when he made his "I Have a Dream" speech, until his death in April 1968, King was the subject of government wiretapping, harassment and blackmail, all directed by the FBI and its illegal leader, J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover, who once called King "the most notorious liar in America," was convinced that communists were influencing the civil rights movement and was dedicated to destroying King's credibility and his career.

As a top FBI man of the time said, "No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents."

In other words, King was being treated as if he were a Soviet spy, not an American citizen.

In the most extreme example of this government abuse of power, a tape recording was made of King allegedly engaging in sexual activity with a woman not his wife. The tape was played for reporters and congressional leaders. A copy of it was even mailed to King's wife with a note suggesting King commit suicide.

Everywhere King traveled, his telephones and hotel rooms were bugged. Any perceived wrongdoing of his was publicized and used to slow the civil rights movement.

The propaganda campaign against King continued until the week of his death. The FBI arranged for the following item to be placed in newspapers: "On 3/29/68 King led a march for the sanitation workers. Like Judas leading lambs to slaughter King led the marchers to violence, and when the violence broke out, King disappeared.

"The fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis is owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes but King didn't go there for his hasty exit. Instead King decided the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated and almost exclusively patronized, was the place to 'cool it.' There will be no boycott of white merchants for King, only for his followers."

This is significant because when King returned to Memphis on April 4, 1968, he registered at the Hotel Lorraine. He was standing on the balcony of that hotel when a shot from a high-powered rifle blasted through his cheek, killing him.

It is impossible to know what King would make of the four decades following his death. But, in a very real sense, the civil rights movement died with King.

We are more integrated in some senses but more segregated than ever in others. Race is an issue that is always present but emerges in the public conscience only when necessary, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The current president has no interest in advancing the rights of anyone, especially those in poverty and those of different backgrounds, black or white. There is no political advantage in it for him to care.

Forty years ago, another Texan held the White House. Addressing civil rights brought that president, Lyndon B. Johnson, no political advantage either. He knew that by signing civil rights and voting rights bills, he'd lose the support of white Southerners.

But he did it because it was the right thing to do. Johnson prophesized that his action would ruin the Democrats in the South for a generation to come. It's been two generations and they're still ruined. But millions of Americans benefited from Johnson's courage and leadership.

Johnson was willing to meet with King, even as LBJ's own government was trying to destroy King. He was willing to listen to King's grievances. The current president shows no such inclination to address anyone's grievances except his own.

Johnson's actions possibly averted a second civil war in this country. The actions of the current leaders are doing everything to bring one about. That's the fundamental difference.

Especially as wealthy, white elites become a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, the government must take actions to secure the rights of the vast majority of the people, who aren't millionaires and who don't contribute thousands to political parties.

But this president will do nothing except utter a few complimentary words about King and then go on with business as usual.

King's words will live forever. Unfortunately, so does the spirit of J. Edgar Hoover. Until the latter is excised, America will remain one nation, divided.