The FBI assistant director described the man as “demagogic” and “the most dangerous … to the nation … from the standpoint … of national security.” Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney General had signed off on intrusive surveillance of the subject’s living quarters, offices, phones, and hotel rooms, and those of his associates.
That immense threat to national security was not Anwar al-Awlaki, Bradley Manning, or Edward Snowden.
The demagogue was Martin Luther King Jr., and the attorney general who OK’d the surveillance was Robert F. Kennedy. It was 1963, and King had just given a powerful speech at the March on Washington where he talked about how America had given black people “a bad check” and they had come to demand “the security of justice.” FBI surveillance of King expanded after the march and under the Johnson administration, particularly after King denounced U.S. policy in Vietnam, and continued until King’s assassination in 1968.
While the bureau could find no proof of the Communist influence it had been looking for, it did gather evidence of King’s adultery, which it passed along to journalists and other government officials, hoping to discredit his leadership. No one in government ever intervened to halt or divulge the surveillance. No journalist ever exposed the monitoring. The surveillance of the civil-rights movement only began to be revealed to the American public after activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., took records, and sent them to various news-media outlets, some of which were willing to publish them.
Perhaps more than any president in recent memory, President Obama wraps himself in the vestments of history, regularly invoking his historical lineage through the civil-rights movement. In December, he tweeted a picture of himself sitting on the bus Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of, in the classic Rosa Parks pose. In January, he took his second oath of office using Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible. In February, he dedicated a statue of Rosa Parks in the Capitol, proclaiming, “it is because of these men and women that I stand here today.”
But the president uses history as a comfort, not as a caution. He likes the company of King and Parks to mark his own historic role and the progress of American democracy, and the public soaks it up to bask in this grand historical progression. But he—and we— gloss over the hard parts, ignoring the lessons these histories also provide.
In defending his administration against last week’s revelations of the NSA’s Prism program and blanket surveillance of Americans’ phone and Internet records, President Obama responded that everything done was legal and that the NSA wasn’t listening in on Americans’ conversation—just using metadata to locate the bad guys.
History provides a caution to such justifications and to the assumptions of who the bad guys are. Threats to national security—those seen as traitors and demagogues—are often defined as people who criticize the government or members of minority groups viewed as “not real Americans” and feared as potentially aiding the enemy. National security has always been a capacious, shape-shifting term, often used against critics not just by conservatives like Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, but also by liberals like Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Extensive FBI surveillance in the months leading up to the March on Washington and the outsized police presence there dovetailed with public fears of civil-rights activism. In one poll a few days before the march, 63 percent of Americans surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of the march and numerous congressmen publicly criticized the huge August demonstration as decidedly “un-American.”
These broad fears have infected Americans once again as the American public has repeatedly sanctioned the curtailment of rights, particularly the rights of Muslims after September 11. 2001. According to a CBS News poll last week, while Americans surveyed voiced opposition to mass surveillance of the “average” person, an extraordinary 78 percent of responders said they had no problem with using NSA surveillance techniques against “possible terrorists” (no definition provided) even if they were American.
Indeed, the immense controversy and political chatter that is still going on seems a bit hypocritical. After revelations came out of the New York City Police Department’s intrusive surveillance of Muslims—including undercover surveillance of mosques, community centers, online chat rooms, restaurants, and Muslim Student Associations— 58 percent of New Yorkers found no problem with that. As of 2011, the FBI had 15,000 informants, mostly aimed at the Muslim community, and 45,000 “unofficial” ones providing extensive information on Muslim-American life and association. Informants are regularly instructed by their FBI or NYPD handlers to listen and probe for anti-American sentiments. And that is done under the cover of the law. In 2003, the Department of Justice issued guidelines outlawing racial profiling–made a blanket exception for “national security” and “border integrity"; the Obama administration has continued that exception. Faced with extensive revelations of the wide-reaching surveillance of Muslims, the American public has stood by; content that the Obama administration is doing what is necessary for “our national security.”
The examples of King and Parks serve as reminders of the impact of such fear and inaction. Immediately termed a possible “traitor” and “Communist plant” for her bus stand, Parks faced economic hardship and death threats in Montgomery. Ala., and Detroit, Mich., for more than a decade after her arrest. King faced similar threats. Parks was red-baited for her associations, particularly with the Highlander Folk School, as was King, as were a number of the organizations she was part of. Six months into the boycott, the NAACP, for which she had been an active organizer for over a decade, was outlawed in Alabama as a foreign organization and instructed to turn over its membership lists. On the march from Selma to Montgomery, a decade later, huge billboards with a picture of King and Parks attending “a Communist training school” (Highlander) lined the route. (In 2005, the FBI responded to a Freedom of Information request for Parks’s file, saying it had been destroyed.)
The metadata collected on King and Parks would surely have identified them and sanctioned more intrusive surveillance —because what metadata maps is associations and connections among people. It was the degree and type of their associations, not the specifics of their conversations, which marked them as suspicious.
It is nice to say we stand on the shoulders of Parks and King, content in our conviction that government officials and the public were sorely wrong then, without humbling ourselves with the idea that we are likely getting it wrong now. Presidents do not like critics who frame the United States as an unjust empire that mistreats certain citizens, and their administrations do not voluntarily self-correct or expose their sins and secrets. Once the precedent is established, surveillance has a life of its own; assurances of good character matter little. Fear and prejudice make the public quiet, if not outright approving of such extreme measures. Courage is costly. That was true then, and it remains true today.
The current controversy around NSA surveillance becomes myopic if it does not tackle the larger problem of whom is being targeted. This surveillance does not affect all Americans equally. History reveals the contingent and political definitions of “national security” and who bears the brunt of such targeting.
Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013). She is a co-founder of Educators for Civil Liberties.