On the Anniversary of the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Surveillance of Political Dissent Continues

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Forty-eight years ago today, at the age of just 39, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Throughout his life he helped to lead nonviolent protests for civil rights, spoke out for peace, and worked for economic justice and labor rights. At the time of his death, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. King always spoke out for justice, even when it was not advantageous to do so. Some of his closest advisors had warned him against criticizing the Vietnam War or supporting the striking workers in Memphis, telling him these were not his issues, were not his causes.

But the man who said “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” could not be silent when his conscience compelled him to speak. While we find this admirable, not everyone wanted the arc of history to bend towards King’s vision of justice. These included people in our own government. Beginning in the 1950s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, monitored, harassed, and tried to neutralize King. A liberal Democrat, Robert F. Kennedy, as Attorney General personally authorized wiretaps against him. After he spoke out against the Vietnam War, just one year before his death (forty-eight years ago today), the National Security Agency spied on his overseas phone calls.

The surveillance of King was not an exception, but rather the rule. While dissent often bears a heavy cost, there is another important aspect to the surveillance of King – the legacy of white supremacy in high places. As Alvaro M. Bedoya wrote in Slate:

Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance; Hoover was no aberration. And while racism has played its ugly part, the justification for this monitoring was the same we hear today: national security.

In spite of multiple attempts at reform, these practices continue. We know that Muslims have been singled out for surveillance, because of their religion. We also know that both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have monitored the Black Lives Matter movement.

This surveillance was shameful in King’s day and it is shameful now. That is why BORDC/DDF is working to put an end to such spying once and for all. We brought together over sixty groups to call on Congress to investigate the FBI and DHS’s spying on Black Lives Matter, as well as other groups, and issue a substantive report that includes recommendations for meaningful reform. We are just getting started though. BORDC/DDF has been meeting with Congressional offices to discuss reining in the FBI and DHS, but need your help too. If you agree that Congress needs to investigate the FBI and DHS, please sign our petition.