Clarence B Jones, wiretapping and Dr Martin Luther King.
August 27, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

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.
(Report here.)

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.
posted by running order squabble fest (8 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, the NSA is just furthering this effort! It's like Story Corps, but less staged and structured!

Great post. Was Hoover not a raving, power-mad and slightly delusional man, or is the majority of coverage of his reign focused on such stark examples as these?
posted by filthy light thief at 9:42 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well... J Edgar Hoover is a post all of his own. Dr King said of him at the time in public that he was showing the strain of a lifetime of dedicated public service, and in private that he was senile.

Certainly, the FBI seemed to have some interesting ideas about need-to-know - according to Garrow, the evidence that King's colleague Stanley Levison had broken his ties with the Communist Party of the USA in 1957 was never shared by the FBI with other intelligence agencies (meaning the CIA still suspected him of being under foreign influence - From Russia through Levison), and as late as 1967 the Bureau was trying to convince Governor Rockefeller of New York (later Vice President Rockefeller) not to donate further to the SCLC or meet again with King, because he was a puppet of Levison and Harry Wachtel - "two of the most dangerous and dedicated communists in the country" - some of those files here.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:16 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hoover believed that communism was a bigger threat to America than organized crime, and actually denied the existence of the Mafia (although I think this was more of a political stance than an actual belief). The main reason RFK had a special committee to investigate the Mob was because Hoover refused to go after them (and there was no love lost between Hoover and the Kennedys). The FBI did have it's own organized crime unit, but was kept on a short leash and was only allow to collect data, rather than seek arrests and prosecution.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

No matter how it was originally intended to be used, any intelligence agency will eventually be used primarily to generate intelligence that justifies increasing its budget.
posted by empath at 4:00 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hoover then expanded this remit to constant and dedicated surveillance, including the routine bugging of hotel rooms.

My first thought upon reading this: I wonder if a recording/transcript exists from the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
posted by 1367 at 8:58 AM on August 28, 2013

And today you don't even need to be significant :
FBI interrogated man after comment about American “Police State” on Facebook
posted by jeffburdges at 1:54 PM on September 7, 2013

I suppose Hoover went after King because he envisioned the FBI suppressing internal decent, which they do even to this day by harassing activists, etc. There were however smarter elements within the federal government who realized that segregation represented a variety of opportunities for communists, so they supported the Civil Rights movement.

A factoid always worth mentioning whenever Hoover comes up : Hoover originally set the FBI after stolen cars, not because they matters, but because they usually turned up, meaning the FBI could artificially inflate it's record. Conversely, agencies like the ATF and DEA were presumably formed because the FBI refused to take on those difficult jobs.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:00 PM on September 7, 2013

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