By DeWayne Wickham
Asked about the recent revelation that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the FBI, Andrew Young downplayed the significance of this betrayal. “The movement was transparent and didn’t have anything to hide anyway,” the King disciple and former Atlanta mayor told The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal.
It might not have had anything to hide, but it had a lot to protect.
From December 1963 until his assassination on April 4, 1968, King was the target of a secret FBI surveillance that, ostensibly, sought to determine whether his efforts to gain fairness and equality for blacks was influenced by communists. But it quickly became what the FBI would later admit was an “unjustified and improper” attempt to discredit King, according to the 1976 report of a U.S. Senate committee that investigated these abuses.
That effort took the FBI far afield of its mission. In 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover approved a plan by the bureau’s domestic intelligence division to replace King with “a new national Negro leader.” After approving it, Hoover said he was “glad to see that light has finally ” come to the unit, which was primarily responsible for uncovering spies and counterintelligence threats.
Withers, who had nearly unfettered access to King and his small circle of advisers, was just a bit player in the FBI campaign. This doesn’t make the treachery Withers is accused of any less despicable, but history would not be well served if his actions weren’t framed in a broader context.
While the FBI never found evidence that King was being influenced by communists — which is what likely moved Young to say the movement had nothing to hide — the FBI’s push to undermine King’s leadership left the movement he led with a lot to protect.
Tipped off about his whereabouts , the FBI bugged King’s telephones and hotel bedrooms for years and tried to use the overheard conversations to pit other civil rights leaders against him, break up his marriage and to get journalists to expose his personal failings. And when the worst of what it got amounted to little more than salacious pillow talk, the FBI continued to press its attack on King — even after his death.
In 1969, the bureau discussed using information about King’s “personal behavior” ” to keep Congress from creating a national holiday in his honor.
All of this might come as a surprise to many people in this country, half of whom were born after King’s untimely death 42 years ago. After being stalled in Congress for 15 years, the King holiday bill became law in 1983. Cities large and small have enshrined his name — if not a memory of the FBI’s vendetta against him — to street signs and schools.
Today, people on the ideological left and right lay claim to the tenets of the “I Had a Dream” address that King gave during the 1963 March on Washington. But two days after King riveted the world with those words, William Sullivan, who headed the FBI’s domestic intelligence unit, called it “a demagogic speech.”
To the extent that Withers provided Hoover and his G-Men with information that allowed them to track King’s movements and peer behind the curtains of his personal life, he must be condemned.
But it is the FBI — not the black photographer who died in 2007 — that deserves the lion’s share of our outrage for what was done to King at its behest.