Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” inspired the world. It also galvanized the Federal Bureau of Investigation into undertaking one of its biggest surveillance operations in history.
Initially approved in October 1963 by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI’s wiretap and hidden-microphone campaign against King lasted until his assassination in April 1968. It was initially justified to probe King’s suspected, unproven links to the Communist Party, morphing into a crusade to “neutralize” and discredit the civil rights leader.
The speech’s impact on the FBI was first outlined in a 1976 report of the U.S. Senate “Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” known by its popular nickname, the “Church Committee,” after Idaho Democrat Frank Church.
At a time when the nation is absorbing revelations of telephone and e-mail surveillance by the National Security Agency, the FBI’s spying on King -- which had no court authorization or oversight -- stands as an example of domestic security gone to excess.
“The FBI’s program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed efforts to discredit him with churches, universities and the press,” said the report. It collected information about King’s plans and activities “through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal,” said the report.