Today we rightly honor Martin Luther King, Jr. as a courageous, committed dissident citizen who played a pivotal, inspirational role in U.S. history.
While we celebrate his leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his determination in Birmingham, and the inimitable eloquence of his "I Have a Dream" speech, we might also recall a less-heralded aspect of King's history: the FBI's intensive efforts to squelch his dissent.
It is this facet of his legacy that may well be most instructive in post-9/11 America.
According to FBI memos, the Bureau aimed to paint King as "a fraud, demagogue, and scoundrel" in order to "take him off his pedestal." FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover-who publicly dubbed King "the most notorious liar in the country"-wrote that he wanted "to neutralize or completely discredit the effectiveness of Martin Luther King Jr."
To do this, the Bureau engaged in extensive surveillance of Dr. King. It also infiltrated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and provided 'friendly' media contacts with degrading information about King. The Bureau even penned a letter to Dr. King in the voice of a disgruntled African-American male, calling him an "abnormal beast" and "a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that."
The FBI carried all this out under a covert Counter Intelligence Program known as COINTELPRO. Within this program, Dr. King was slotted under the "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" rubric, despite the fact that he preached love, not hate and that he relied on moral force, not physical force.
In the mid-1970s, Congress spotlighted this breach of public trust, with the Senate's Church Committee finding that the FBI had an "unquestionable" impact on Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.
Fast-forward to today. When the Senate reconvenes this week, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.
This bill, which zipped through the House last October by a 404 to 6 vote, aspires to create a blue-ribbon National Commission on homegrown terrorism, which would have the power to recommend legislation. It would also allow the Department of Homeland Security to fashion a "Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism" at a U.S. university that would "study the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots" of U.S.-based radicalization and terrorism.
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That all sounds innocuous enough, but the devil lies in the definitional details.
For instance, "violent radicalization" is defined as "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change."
In his time King was often accused of "promoting an extremist belief system" in order to "advance social change." He famously addressed this in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love?"
The bill defines "ideologically based violence" as "the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual's political, religious, or social beliefs."
Would King's direct-action tactics be considered the "threatened use of force"? These tactics often triggered a violent response, as with Bull Connor's infamous fire hoses in Birmingham. Would the blame for such a violent scene be pinned on King, priming him for the label "terrorist"?
The phrase "homegrown terrorism" is "the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence" by people in the U.S. "in furtherance of political or social objectives." Once again, those who-like Dr. King-press aggressively for political and social change are explicitly targeted.
To call Dr. King a "terrorist" is to peddle absurdity. Yet, this bill promises to affix this label to those who follow in King's activist footsteps.
Thirty years ago the Senate unequivocally condemned the FBI's suppression of Dr. King. Today the Homeland Security Committee-which includes presidential hopeful Barack Obama-has an opportunity to stop this legislation in its ideological tracks.
To do so would be a tribute to King's legacy and rightful protection for those who dare to show similar courage and conviction today.