Coretta Scott King and the Eavesdropping Debate

Late Civil Rights Leader Knew Dangers of Wiretapping

Commentary
By ROBERT SIMMELKJAER

Feb. 7, 2006 —

The death of Coretta Scott King has reopened discussion of many important topics. But largely overlooked is the connection between the enduring legacy of the King marriage and the hearings held this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program.

Perhaps no American could relate more to the dangers of domestic eavesdropping run amok than Coretta Scott King.

In October 1963, three months after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech propelled him and his wife to greater national prominence, the Kings moved into the cross hairs of the man who would become perhaps their greatest enemy: J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover, at the time, was a living legend. He had created the FBI and led it for nearly 40 years. He had unparalleled and nearly unchecked power. And, for a variety of reasons, he had it out for Martin Luther King Jr.

That month Hoover asked Attorney General Robert Kennedy for permission to place wiretaps on King's home and office telephones. Hoover based his request on his claim that King's inner circle included known communists. With the Cold War at its height, Kennedy did not want to be on the wrong side of this issue, and he approved the request.

But Robert Kennedy knew not the torrent his approval of these wiretaps would unleash. Hoover's surveillance of King would quickly expand beyond wiretapping, and his investigation of King's communist ties would become a personal vendetta.

Surveillance for 'National Security'

Hoover -- a Southern conservative who was at best suspicious of the civil rights movement -- was stung by King's frequent criticism of the FBI and indignant over the positive media coverage King received. For almost two years, the FBI recorded King's telephone conversations on both public and private topics.

But Hoover went even further than Kennedy's authorization allowed. He ordered that bugs be placed in King's hotel rooms across the country, later claiming that a previous attorney general had authorized such surveillance for "national security."

It is now well-known that these tapes contained evidence not of King being a communist but of having extramarital affairs. The FBI mailed incriminating tapes to Martin and Coretta King, in one instance even encouraged Martin to commit suicide. The tapes were played to journalists and used in attempts to diminish King's credibility.

Hoover's King surveillance was a breathtaking use of executive power that went far beyond the "national security" concerns that he used to justify it in the first place. But it did not destroy the King's marriage.

This week we heard another attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, justify a warrantless wiretapping program under the guise of national security. Gonzales testified that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law created to curb the abuses of the Hoover and Nixon eras, is now an obstacle in protecting Americans against the threat of terrorism.

Just as Hoover had pointed to a previous broad authorization to justify his program, Gonzales argued that Congress' post-9/11 resolution authorizing the use of force to combat terrorism justified the broadest domestic spying program since the 1970s.

At the memorial service today, President Carter -- who is a frequent critic of the current president -- raised the issue, saying, "It was difficult for them then personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps."

The legal arguments for and against the Bush surveillance program will continue to compete in the halls of government and perhaps in the courts. But to recall the dark history of unfettered eavesdropping in America, we must look no further this week than Coretta Scott King. She knew all too well that someone was always listening.