The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Privacy and Public Debate

Today when Americans honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, they celebrate his public bravery, principles of human dignity and commitment to justice. They also follow his model of stepping into the public to engage in reasoned debate.
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The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s impact on American Democracy remains unparalleled. Dr. King called upon all Americans to eschew the status quo of mid-20th-century racial relations for the universal equality guaranteed by the American Constitution. Fighting the de facto segregation that continues to linger long after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954, King entreated Americans to choose justice over order. He spoke at Stanford University in 1967 decrying "The Other America," which denied people of color equal access to prosperity and advancement. Amid all of his fearless public service and temperate appeals for equality, King suffered a grotesque attack on his private life that mars the history of American public discourse.

It is well known that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover began surveilling King in 1957 under the pretense of his alleged ties to communists. The FBI operation COMINFIL endeavored to show how King's connection to onetime American Communist Party financier and progressive Jewish businessman Stanley Levinson, in fact, revealed a communist plot behind the Civil Rights movement. Such efforts failed to establish any connection to the communists. Martin Luther King espoused a liberal social agenda, but in no way sympathized with the U.S.S.R. But Hoover harbored greater ambitions: he wanted to eradicate grassroots civil movements that challenged official governmental authority. If King wasn't a communist, he proved at very least a nuisance. His powerful, moving rhetoric galvanized Americans in the way no official communications could.

Wiretapping King's hotel rooms, the FBI recorded private conversations among King intimates and advisers, collecting personal ruminations King would have never voiced in public. It must have enraged Hoover to have heard King say over the wiretap that the FBI director was "old and senile." But the material gleaned from MLKJR's private interactions was "just too good" to stop Hoover from listening. The FBI celebrated striking a treasure trove of blackmail gold when it uncovered King's appetite for women other than his own wife. Hoover shared the tapes of King's sexual encounters with President Lyndon Johnson and reporters, who played them for various aides and anyone who would hear them.

When King won the Nobel Prize in 1964 Hoover told a gathering of women reporters, "Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country." King responded with bewilderment and offered to meet with Hoover.

"I was appalled and surprised at your reported statement maligning my integrity," King communicated via telegram to Hoover. "What motivated such an irresponsible accusation is a mystery to me."

Hoover at first refused to meet the man he called racial epithets and a "tomcat," but under political and public pressure, he finally agreed. During the meeting, the FBI director harangued the Reverend for an hour and never explained his charges. Meanwhile, the FBI sent King threatening letters ventriloquizing supposedly disillusioned African-American civil rights followers, but written by one of Hoover's deputies, most likely, William Sullivan. The most infamous letter was reproduced in the New York Times in 2014. Riddled with typos and scribbled corrections, the letter reveals either the unwillingness of the FBI writer to revise and type a clean draft, or the FBI's racist attempt to imitate what it imagined civil rights writing to look like. The language, meanwhile, was pure bullying: calling King "degenerate" "low-grade" "abnormal" and encouraged him to commit suicide: "like all frauds your end is approaching... there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is."

However one assesses Martin Luther King Jr.'s adultery and other personal transgressions, the surveillance that he experienced serves as a particularly stark warning. Surely surveillance has often led to political scandals, for example, Linda Tripp's recording of conversations with Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern, who had an affair with President Bill Clinton. But the Lewinsky Affair was intended to embarrass a popular politician; the surveillance of King aimed at extinguishing public initiatives and open debate.

In a country founded on ideals of public participation, King acted as a "gadfly," just as Socrates had once called himself, reminding, pestering the government to adhere to its obligation to its citizens and allow them to form opinions in public without fear of reprisal. King willingly embraced his exposure to government retaliation for his leadership, but he lived as all Americans aspire to, under the expectation of privacy at home and in the bedroom. The government violated this privacy as it sought to silence his peaceful affirmation of the Supreme Court decision and the ideals of the American Constitution.

Today when Americans honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, they celebrate his public bravery, principles of human dignity and commitment to justice. They also follow his model of stepping into the public to engage in reasoned debate. Such engagement also reminds Americans of their right to privacy in their own homes and lives, where they can be free to form their beliefs, test and refine ideas with loved ones before sharing them with the public. Martin Luther King's loss of privacy was appalling on many levels. We can't unknow those private details, but we can defend private life and the public freedom of speech, and we can follow his lead in demanding justice over the status quo.

Thank you, Dr. King.

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