Protecting Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Steven Bradford
July 13, 2021

Martin Luther King Jr.’s death at the young age of 39, in a murder committed more than 50 years ago by a penny-ante racist, did not end his influence in changing the way we live in America. King came of age just shy of a century after the end of slavery. He lived and died at a time when our country was once again pondering how freedom and opportunity are different depending on the color of your skin.

There are substantial reasons that King remains resonant. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” detailing how the future is written by those willing to take action, speaks volumes about an activist’s life. His protests were unmatched for peaceful effectiveness, and his “I have a dream” moment at the March on Washington is American eloquence rivaled only by Lincoln at Gettysburg.

King walked into the heart of Jim Crow demanding change from those intransigent in their hatred. His courage was unquestioned, his method of nonviolence risky and his unapologetic style dangerous.

His place as a Black martyr, and a touchstone in history, is reinforced by his crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Housing Act and his vocal approach to ending the war in Vietnam. He had a steadfast willingness to actively repudiate oppression in any form. He went to Memphis, where he was assassinated, to support garbage collectors striking for higher wages.

King is critical to memorializing the Black experience in America. His mission and the challenges he confronted remain timeless. His narrative is also notable because the system he wanted to change exploited resources to destroy him. No one has the right to feed on his legacy. The betrayal of Martin Luther King. Jr. is as old as the biblical book of Luke, Chapter 20, Verse 20: So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and the jurisdiction of the governor.

King was under surveillance for the last 13 years of his life, and his hotel rooms were bugged by the FBI from at least October 1963 until his killing in April 1968. Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed the first order for the bugging. He did it on the shallow assumption that a King disciple was a communist. The charge itself was untrue and certainly not a justification for the years-long assault on King’s privacy.

The same Martin Luther King Jr. who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and forever changed the lives of Black Americans for the better, was labeled by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the most dangerous man in America.

The invasion into King’s life is unprecedented for a political leader. Bugs were hidden in the lights near his bed and on Nov. 21, 1964, the FBI sent a compilation of tapes to King’s home, knowing the package would be received by his wife. In an enclosed note written in vitriol, the FBI told King he had no option except to commit suicide.

King was not infallible, and his remarkable attributes as a human being did not include a life of saintliness. Those human moments and the ease with which old friends talk in the quiet of motel rooms are no doubt on the tapes.

The FBI has a long history of engaging in misinformation campaigns targeting Black activism — and worse — counterintelligence that likely resulted in the killing of leadership in the Black Panther Party. If there was evidence of criminality on those tapes, Hoover would have swept in on King with the vengeance of pigeons armed to bring down an eagle.

The tapes should never have been made. The right to privacy is sacrosanct — a core tenet of religious confession and the exercising of our public franchise behind a polling booth curtain. The taping was as unconscionable then as it is now, and the vultures are not entitled to feed on the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The parsing of every statement uttered in breezy conversation or secrets shared with confidantes during times of stress are not meant to be part of the national discussion.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference sued to have the tapes destroyed. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia decided instead that the tapes would be placed in the National Archives and sealed for 50 years until 2027. If the reasoning was that our society would be less inclined to be judgmental, or that King’s place in the American consciousness would lessen, the court was wrong.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. matters to every Black person living in California. That is why, as chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, I am authoring Senate Joint Resolution 7, with the support of my colleagues in the Black Caucus, to urge the National Archives to destroy the FBI surveillance tapes. I will also be personally proposing the hiring of former Attorney General Eric Holder to petition again for their destruction.

They play no role in the way we record history. The tapes are nothing more than an obscene intrusion and a rotten way to make private moments the stuff of scandal that is beyond reasonable, responsible, moral and fair. King’s legacy, his family and this nation deserve better. We can no longer be silent regarding this criminal act by the U.S. government.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena (Los Angeles County), is chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus and the Senate Public Safety Committee. He is also a member of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.