The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sure has a unique way of remembering history — especially Black history.
The same law enforcement agency for the U.S. government that used controversial surveillance programs like COINTELPRO to spy on Martin Luther King Jr. apparently decided that the best way to celebrate the civil rights icon’s enduring legacy of social justice on the federal holiday named for him was by trying to use the good reverend doctor’s own words in vain.
It was a strange (but not entirely unexpected) twist of fate that prompted the FBI to tweet on Monday that it “honors the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
But that irony wasn’t enough for whoever runs the agency’s social media accounts. The tweet continued by pointing to King’s quote etched in stone at the FBI’s training academy: “The time is always right to do what is right.” It was accompanied by, of course, the requisite #MLKDay hashtag, presumably in an effort to get more people to see the tweet.
Well, not only did more people see it, many reacted with anger at what they called the FBI’s audacity to attempt to relate to a man who the agency spied on and played a major role in contributing to King’s assassination.
The tweet came across as tone-deaf, smug and privileged more than 50 years after the FBI “began monitoring Martin Luther King, Jr., in December 1955, during his involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott, and engaged in covert operations against him throughout the 1960s. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was personally hostile toward King, believing that the civil rights leader was influenced by Communists,” the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute says on its website, the foremost online authority on “King’s life and the movement he inspired.”
And that’s a nice way of describing what the FBI did to King.
The FBI got then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to approve wiretapping King’s phones in 1963 — the same year he gave his timeless “I Have A Dream Speech” and the feds called him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”
One year later, Hoover called King the “most notorious liar in the country.” The FBI even sent King a letter urging him to kill himself amid unfounded allegations of improprieties and insisted that the American public would soon recognize him as “an evil, abnormal beast.”
Trying to reconcile the FBI’s past with its tweet Monday was challenging enough. But a quick look back in history, both recent and distant, can serve as a brief reminder of how those words the FBI used to describe King during the Civil Rights Movement might be better used to characterize itself.
Not only has the FBI waged covert wars on Black and brown people since its inception in the early 20th century but it has also been blamed for the election of Donald Trump (see James Comey for more on that.). Never mind the fact how the FBI continued to keep tabs on so-called “Black identity extremists” and label them terror threats. And, oh yeah — remember COINTELPRO, a surveillance program the FBI tried to pass off as only spying on Communists but really turned out to be an anti-Civil Rights Movement initiative more than anything else?
With that larger context hanging over the FBI, Monday’s tweet about Martin Luther King was misguided at best and ignorant of its own history at worst.