by Juan Cole
Among the ironies of Barack Obama trying to sell us the gargantuan NSA domestic spying program is that such techniques of telephone surveillance were used against the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in an attempt to destroy him and stop the Civil Rights movement. Had the republic’s most notorious peeping tom, J. Edgar Hoover, succeeded in that quest, Obama might never have been president, or even served in Virginia restaurants.
Now that MLK is recognized by all but a tiny minority of Americans (Dick
Cheney being in the minority) as a national hero, it is sometimes hard to
remember that the Establishment treated him in his own lifetime like a criminal
conspirator. He merely demanded the end of Jim Crow Apartheid and equal rights
and opportunities for African-Americans with whites in every state of the
union. As a result of this entirely reasonable demand, required by the 14th
Amendment, he was placed under 24 hour a day surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As with everything in the Cold War, the pretext was that King might have Communist associates. Just as the NSA grabbing our metadata today is justified by the pretext that all 310 million of us might have al-Qaeda associates.
King’s powerful I have a Dream speech from the steps of the Capitol
provoked a frothing at the mouth Hoover to swing into full action against him.
One of Hoover’s aides wrote in a memo after that 1963 event,
In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech, we must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.
At Hoover’s urgent request, Bobby Kennedy permitted the FBI secretly to break into KingÕs premises and those of his associates and plant bugs. They also bugged meetings where he spoke and hotels he stayed in. Let me repeat that. The reaction of the head of the FBI and the attorney general of the US to King’s dream that little boys and girls of different races would play games
with each other was to record his every word and action and those of his
If that speech can get you that kind of scrutiny in the USA, then why should
we ever trust any high government official with our personal
information? Most of us are at least as idealistic as that.
The FBI caught MLK in a couple of extramarital encounters. Hoover, who had
profound sexual hang-ups probably to the point of psychosis, hated him with a
passion. Having spent his career using the information he gathered on
Congressmen to blackmail them, he apparently hoped to use MLK’s
alleycat degenerate (Hoover’s words) against him.
Hoover, the supreme perv, sent him an anonymous threatening letter:
You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that . . . The American public will know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast . . . Satan could not do more . . . King you are done . . . King, there is only one thing left for you to do . . . You know what it is . You better
take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
Presumably Hoover hoped to drive King to suicide under threat of having his
dalliances revealed; presumably also MLK would have put together that Hoover
had his private life in his files.
When King was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, Hoover attempted to derail the
ceremony by trying to leak the affairs to the press. To their credit, the
editors and reporters recoiled from the squalor of the entire matter and
refused to touch it.
The point is that King’s private life is irrelevant to his public demands and his public role. He was demanding constitutional rights for all Americans. Who he shtupped in his spare time is not
germane to the rightness of that demand.
Note that today’s NSA collection of all Americans smartphone records shows who they called and texted and where they were when they did it. All American dalliances are as transparent in those records as King’s were to Hoover. If the US government was willing to try to blackmail King and many other public figures (Hoover always went straight to any Congressman on whom he got dirt and let him know about it, putting the man in his back pocket), then
it is willing to blackmail anyone who becomes inconvenient.
That Barack Obama thinks we’re so naive or uninformed about American history
that we will buy his assurances that the NSA information on us would never be
used is a sad commentary. Indeed, we cannot know for sure that Obama himself
and other high American officials are not being blackmailed into taking the
positions they do on domestic surveillance. If the American people do accept
such empty words, then I suppose they deserve to have Hoover’s pervy successors in their bedrooms.
Copyright 2014 Juan Cole
Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University
of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He is also the author of (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has appeared widely on television,
radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a
regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and
has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is