Don’t revert to J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal tactics against Dr. King

“There is only one thing left for you to do…You know what it is.”

William Sullivan, an FBI agent working for the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, wrote these words in a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. An overt threat, it was the kind of statement that would be chilling from a criminal, but is more so because this threat is from the nation’s national law enforcement agency. Dr. King’s “offense” stemmed from his leadership of the civil rights movement.

Hoover’s blind hate of King led him to ratchet up his unconstitutional surveillance, convincing then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to sanction him to tap King’s phone. He had no evidence that Dr. King may have been involved in any criminal activity. Far from it, Dr. King was often the one being threatened with violence. And, increasingly, many of the unconstitutional threats were directly from the FBI.

Maya WIley

Credit: Kristen Blush

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Credit: Kristen Blush

The wiretaps represent a long, sordid history of United States law enforcement’s criminalization of Black America. We have since come a long way, and these unconstitutional attempts to undermine King’s patriotic work to advance democracy remain a stain on the FBI.

But recent comments from Robert F. Kennedy’s son, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., attempting to justify unjustifiable acts of his father, represent a broader political movement to dismantle the legacies of civil rights giants to revert this country back to an era inconsistent with constitutional promises such as the right to privacy and equal protection under the law.

As we approach this election cycle, we must understand that the choice we are faced with in November is not a choice between individual candidates or even political parties; it is a choice between fascism and democracy.

Derrick Johnson

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

From the denial of slavery as the cause for the Civil War, to platforms based on the erasure of Black history in our schools, and now, this disturbing argument for unconstitutional wiretaps in the absence of any wrongdoing; the current political landscape presents a direct threat to all American and particularly Black life and progress.

Today, 11 states and localities are passing laws to make it harder for anti-police violence activists to protest peacefully. To make matters worse, 35 states have signed into law or proposed legislation banning or restricting the teaching of a broadly defined “critical race theory” which is inclusive of factual contributions by African Americans, as well as public policy harms targeting African Americans such as Slavery, Segregation, Red Lining, etc., all in an attempt to rewrite history.

When the non-violent struggle for rights and dignity, and the accurate teaching of those struggles become a crime, our very democracy pays the price.

Politicians intentionally undermine the legitimacy of an FBI, without evidence, to undermine its efforts to hold the politically powerful, like Donald Trump, accountable where there is evidence of federal crimes. We can’t have blind trust in government, but nor can we allow any suggestion that viewpoints against Black Lives or in support of Trumpism should undermine it.

Hoover was an out-of-control, power-hungry director who trampled civil liberties and was feared and distrusted for his lurid tactics and avoidance of oversight and accountability. The FBI was a rogue agency that had not only exceeded its mandates and broken the law, but it had almost been transformed into Hoover’s secret security service.

From Thurgood Marshall, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin, to name a few, so many leaders in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, the women’s rights movement, the American Indian Movement, faced unconstitutional surveillance for seeking civil and human rights. The 1964 letter from Sullivan, delivered to King to scare him to silence, was not done in the name of public safety. It was done in the name of white supremacy — the kind that didn’t care for the Constitution or rule of law or the humanity of all residents of this great nation, one that cherishes free speech, the right to protest peacefully and petition the government to do its job and hold it accountable when it does not.

We know that this democracy is far from perfect, but its complete demise means a complete demise of an America that King, and so many others like him worked to create. Dr. King’s right to privacy should not be violated any more than our rights today. Not only should we reject the perilous legal precedent that releasing the tapes would set, we must reject any effort to perpetuate fascist ideals at the highest levels of government. Democracy may be broken, but we must be afforded the opportunity to fix it, while acknowledging the history of Black struggles and celebrating the work of Black activists.

Maya Wiley is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Derrick Johnson is CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.