FBI, King and the Tremors of History

Nothing like trying to rewrite history.

Remember way back when, when America was one nation under God and everyone got along so nicely? That was the sentiment of an FBI tweet on Martin Luther King Day, which — oh, the horror! — blew up in the agency’s face and brought a real fragment of the Old Days back into public consciousness. And maybe, in the process, the agency woke up King’s actual dream — you know, the one it hated and did its best to smother.

This was the FBI’s official tweet on MLK Day:

Today, the FBI honors the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A quote from Dr. King is etched in stone at the FBI Academy’s reflection garden in Quantico as a reminder to all students and FBI employees: ‘The time is always right to do what is right.

That the FBI — the agency that saw King and the civil rights movement as a communist plot, subjected him to merciless surveillance and may have tried to get him to commit suicide — should, 50-plus years after his murder, purport to honor him was simply too much for lots of people, many of whom linked to a monstrous letter the agency had sent to King, along with a box of tapes showing him having sex with various women who were not his wife.

The letter was a phony screed of outrage, allegedly from a black former supporter, which ended thus:

The American public, the church organizations have been helping — Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are — an evil abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (it) . . . . You are done. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

King knew from the start that this was from the FBI and did not let it stop him. And its relevance today is not as simply a piece of the past. Yes, it’s a reminder of the blatant, unrestrained racism of yore, but even more disturbing is the institutional arrogance it represents, combined with racism. This is white America “protecting” itself — institutionally, at the highest levels of government.

Who here thinks we’re done with all that?

Indeed, this nation’s lack of atonement for its past — combined with the endless wars it is currently waging — make King’s legacy profoundly problematic, by which I mean relevant.

For instance, he wrote in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait

Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.

And then there was his stand against the Vietnam war

Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

These words, delivered at Riverside Church in New York, a year to the day before his assassination, drove LBJ nuts. Who did King think he was? He got his civil rights legislation! Now here he was, opposing America’s noble war.

Not only do these words remain immensely relevant today, they are a reminder of how little has changed and how King-level outrage over our wars, our racism and our poverty remains crucial. Endless war — racist militarism — continues to be a defining national characteristic, unchallenged at the political or media center.

Even when critical of U.S. actions, media commentary on recent U.S. bombings and assassinations in the Middle East is premised on the assumption that the U.S. has the right to use violence (or the threat of it) to assert its will, anytime, anywhere.

Gregory Shupak wrote recently at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “Conversely, corporate media coverage suggests that any countermeasure — such as resistance to the US presence in Iraq — is inherently illegitimate, criminal and/or terroristic.”

I do, however, believe that this is a nation where change — a “revolution of values,” as MLK put it — is possible. Indeed, his life shows this to be the case, but honoring King requires more than thanking him for his service or reciting a quote that instantly goes meaningless.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it this way recently, at a Martin Luther King Day event in New York City: 

We can’t sit around and use the high school history version of Dr. King. King’s life did not end because he said ‘I have a dream.’ It ended because he was dangerous to the core injustices of this nation. . . . If we want to honor him, we have to be dangerous too.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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