WASHINGTON — Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” inspired the world. It also galvanized the FBI into undertaking one of its biggest surveillance operations in history.
Initially approved in October 1963 by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI’s wiretap and clandestine microphone campaign against King lasted until his assassination in April 1968. It was initially justified to probe King’s suspected, unproven links to the Communist Party, morphing into a crusade to “neutralize” and discredit the civil rights leader.
The speech’s impact on the FBI was first outlined in a 1976 report of the Senate “Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” known by its popular nickname, the “Church Committee,” after Idaho Democrat Frank Church.
At a time when the nation is absorbing revelations of telephone and email surveillance by the National Security Agency, the FBI’s spying on King — which had no court authorization or oversight — stands as an example of domestic security gone to excess.
“The FBI’s program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed efforts to discredit him with churches, universities and the press,” said the report.
It collected information about King’s plans and activities “through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal,” said the report.
William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division during the King surveillance program, told the committee in 1975 that, “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.”
Sullivan reflected the view of top FBI leaders including Director J. Edgar Hoover, in an Aug. 30, 1963, post-speech memo entitled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”
“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech” that “he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan said. “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.”
The speech’s impact and popularity “very directly contributes in a very major way to Sullivan characterizing” King as “the most dangerous Negro in the country,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Garrow wrote in an email statement.
“FBI officials viewed the speech as significantly increasing King’s national stature,” Garrow said, making him “measurably more ‘dangerous’ in the FBI’s view than he’d been prior” to it, Garrow said.
Sullivan’s characterization was “indicative of where the FBI’s top intelligence officers were coming from,” said Garrow, author of several books on King, including his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Bearing the Cross.” And it wasn’t just Hoover, it was “an organizational culture of like-minded white men,” he said.
In an Oct. 1, 1963, memo to his field offices, Hoover directed “that we at once intensify our coverage of communist influence on the Negro.”
Robert Kennedy that month approved the installation of wiretaps on King’s phone and those at the New York and Atlanta offices of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ostensibly to look into any communist ties.
The bureau in December 1963 decided to expand its microphone and wiretap effort without telling Kennedy in “a secret effort to discredit Dr. King and to ‘neutralize’ him as the leader of the civil rights movement,” said the Church report.
The effort began in January 1964 and included installing microphones at hotels King visited.
The first was the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., which yielded 19 reels of taped King conversations, said the Church report. The hotel this week sponsored an “I Have a Dream” brunch with opera diva Denyce Graves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic address.
Asked what lessons can be applied to the NSA surveillance issue from the Bureau’s 1960s campaign, Garrow said “the richly-documented history” should be “a well-remembered reminder that U.S. intelligence agencies should not be trusted to behave properly, or even legally, in the absence of aggressive investigative oversight.”
Legal opinions from the court that authorizes foreign surveillance, which were declassified last week, said tens of thousands of Americans who sent e-mails from 2008 to 2011 had some of them scooped up by the NSA.
The NSA intercepted as many as 56,000 electronic communications a year of Americans who weren’t suspected of having links to terrorism before a secret court found the operation unconstitutional in 2011, according to opinions.
Postscript: Sullivan in 1975 testimony before the Church panel backtracked from his post-speech memo, noting “we had to engage in a lot of nonsense which we ourselves really did not believe in.”