Monday, November 22, 2010

The FBI and Martin Luther King

I recently came upon a letter I had written to the Washington Post, published on June 14, 1969. (I was living in Washington at the time, during a two year post-residency fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health.) It had recently been revealed that the FBI had tapped Dr. King's telephone for many years. Here's what I wrote:
Sensible citizens should no longer be shocked by disgraceful misconduct on the part of our national leaders, but your description of the FBI's most recent foray into electronic surveillance deserves comment. The FBI cannot be allowed to excuse itself with a bland acknowledgement that it "did not follow regular policy on this particular (Martin Luther King) surveillance." Mr. Hoover is deserving of public rebuke at the very least, though removal from office is a more reasonable response to this illegal and immoral intrusion on the right to private communication.

The actions of a Federal agency cannot be regulated if its leaders are not held strictly accountable for the agency's conduct. Mr. Nixon attacked student radicals for their "moral arrogance" in his recent speech on the basis of their lack of "respect for the rights of others." The FBI deserves to be judged by the same standards we apply to the SDS.
Subsequent investigation revealed that J. Edgar Hoover's actions were actually much worse than I'd imagined in 1969. Here's a paragraph from a 1976 report to the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations:
The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness. As early as 1962, Director Hoover penned on an FBI memorandum, "King is no good." At the August 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King told the country of his dream that "all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, I'm free at last."' The FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division described this "demagogic speech" as yet more evidence that Dr. King was "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." Shortly afterward, Time magazine chose Dr. King as the "Man of the Year," an honor which elicited Director Hoover's comment that "they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one." Hoover wrote "astounding" across the memorandum informing him that Dr. King had been granted an audience with the Pope despite the FBI's efforts to prevent such a meeting. The depth of Director Hoover's bitterness toward Dr. King, a bitterness which he had effectively communicated to his subordinates in the FBI, was apparent from the FBI's attempts to sully Dr. King's reputation long after his death. Plans were made to "brief" congressional leaders in 1969 to prevent the passage of a "Martin Luther King Day." In 1970, Director Hoover told reporters that Dr. King was the "last one in the world who should ever have received" the Nobel Peace Prize.
A week after my letter was published in the Washington Post I got a letter of Hoover, berating me. I remember the combination of chill and anger that I felt on reading it.

I confess to feeling proud and happy about the 41 year old letter. I believe that advocacy, which comes in many flavors, is important for personal health as well as the health of society. When my sons were at the age when children whine, my wife and I countered "don't whine - argue!" (Not surprisingly, they became excellent arguers.) Sometimes health conditions can be definitively remedied, but often, like mortality itself, they are fixed parts of our experience. I once asked a French patient who had suffered greatly from the impact of bipolar illness what a psychiatrist in France would say at the end of an appointment. "Courage" was the answer. "Courage" comes from the French word for heart - "coeur." The stance of advocacy both reflects strength of heart and helps to create it.

(See here, here, and here for posts that touch on the issue of advocacy and health.)

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