Thanks to the FBI, he has a vast — and accurate — archive of the time. "If I have a fuzzy memory or hazy memory, I look at it, and there's a verbatim transcript of the conversations.
Clarence Jones, Dr Martin Luther King's legal advisor, talks to NPR about working with Dr King, the metaphor he supplied to the "I have a dream" speech and the extent of the surveillance of King and his associates by the US security establishment.
On the eve of the anniversary of the "March on Washington", Jones, now an academic and occasional columnist
, reminisces about how the "promissory note" King accused America of defaulting on was inspired by the actual promissory note Jones had to sign to get the cash to bail out those imprisoned at the Children's March in Birmingham, Alabama. He also talks about the extensive recording of his conversations and conference calls with Dr King by J Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Dr King apparently mocked Jones' paranoia, accusing him of seeing Feds under the bed in imitation of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover's famous paranoia about Communist infiltrators. However, it has now been revealed that the FBI was indeed tapping and recording Dr King's conversations - providing Jones with a complete record of his conversations with the civil rights leader which proved invaluable when writing his memoir of the composition of the speech, Behind the Dream
. Hoover, in turn, being convinced that King was aiding America's enemies and that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was extensively infiltrated by Communists.
The extent of Dr King's wiretapping was unprecedented - Attorney General Robert Kennedy apparently gave Hoover's FBI limited authority to tap King's phone experimentally and for a limited period, but never terminated the authority.
Hoover then expanded this remit to constant and dedicated surveillance, including the routine bugging of hotel rooms. Although the transcripts from that surveillance have been ordered to remain sealed until 2027, the investigation of the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Idaho's Frank Church
and Freedom of Information Act requests in the 1970s have opened up around 70,000 pages of FBI memos regarding Dr King - including one request by David Garrow
, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(Garrow talks about the FBI's interactions with and surveillance of Dr King here
The Church Committee's investigation discovered that the surveillance went beyond recording to attempted leaks of classified information to news sources:
...former Attorney General Katzenbach and Former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall both testified that the Bureau had offered tape recordings of Dr King to certain newsmen in Washington DC. They further stated that they informed President Johnson of the FBI's offers. The Committee has discovered no evidence, however, that the President or Justice Department officials made any further effort to halt the discrediting campaign at this time or at any other time; indeed, the Bureau's campaign continued for several years after this incident.
J Edgar Hoover's intense focus on King - files at the Government Information Library at the University of Colorado show his personal, handwritten and often angry notes on reports
- and its subsequent investigation by the Church Committee meant that Dr King played an unexpected if absent role in two events that would have some significant in more recent years.
FISA and FISC, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, were created based on the Church Committiee's recommendations, and remain tasked with safeguarding Americans from being caught in "dragnet" surveillance and experiencing (figuratively and literally) warrantless surveillance in the name of national security to this day.
Also significant, although only tangentially related, was the removal of William Colby from the director's chair at the CIA and his predecessor James Schlesinger from his post as Secretary of Defence within the Ford administration. (Clarence Kelley, the FBI's second director, was appointed in 1973, having previously retired from the Bureau in 1961, and kept his job). Their replacements: George Herbert Walker Bush and Donald Rumsfield.