Every year, the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. evokes a nationwide sense of self reflection. The legendary Civil Rights leader forced the country to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and face the bitter treatment and hypocritical denial of basic liberties to African-Americans. But years after his death, not only do the icon's words still ring true, but the government's extreme plot to bring him down proves how far the country still has to go with respect to civilian privacy.
Just a few days after President Obama laid out a plan for modest changes to the National Security Agency, and months after the public clamor provoked by the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, this Martin Luther King Day shines a light on a stain on the government's history when it went through great lengths to destroy a man it now celebrates.
FBI records give a detailed account of the organization's efforts to derail King's civil rights work. After delivering his "I Have A Dream Speech," at the 1963 March on Washington, the government's interest of the leader intensified. One FBI memo refers to King as "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."
In an effort to prove he was under Communist influence, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spent significant resources monitoring King's movements and eavesdropping on his communications. Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave consent, allowing the organization to break into King's office and home installing phone taps and bugs to track the leader's movements and conversations as well as those of his associates. Although the recordings did not reveal any association with the Communist Party, they did reveal extensive details about his extramarital affairs.
After learning King would be the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover took his fanatical obsession with obliterating King to the next level. Agents sent the reverend an anonymous note, chastising him for his affairs and implying that he should commit suicide.
Excerpts from the letter reveal just how far the government would go to tear the leader down:
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God... Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.
King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
Hoover despised King with an incredible zest and put the bureau's full power behind eliminating the leader.
In her new book "The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI," journalist and author Betty Medsger chronicles Hoover's obsession with King and overzealous violation of the leader's privacy:
"Hoover's attitude toward King can be described as a nearly savage hatred... The plot involved office break-ins, use of informers, mail opening, wiretapping, and bugging of King's office, home, and hotel rooms."
But Dr. King's story isn't one that only lives in history books, reflecting a time long past. Snowden's leak of NSA secrets revealed how much government surveillance has grown dramatically in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy reflects the memory of an utterly selfless man who prioritized peace and justice over hate and inequality, it simultaneously reveals how far a government is willing to go when it suspects that someone is a threat to the status quo, and effectively an enemy of the state.