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A ‘Weaponized’ FBI? Yes, but Its Real Historical Targets Were People Fighting for Their Rights

The idea that the Justice Department and FBI are “deep state” forces aiming to undermine the MAGA movement conflicts with history. Too many state and local officials were complicit in the feds’ efforts to fight the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X following a press conference King held at the U.S. Capitol regarding the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The FBI harassed and surveilled King for years, and evidence has emerged that Malcolm X was surrounded by FBI informants at the time of his assassination. (Library of Congress)
Last week we celebrated what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 94th birthday. Around this time every year, my wife and I usually listen to King’s speeches, watch civil rights documentaries and biopics, and pray and meditate that today’s leaders find the messages and life examples of King and other civil rights heroes relevant to, and meaningful for, public service.

This year we watched a new documentary, MLK/FBI by filmmaker Sam Pollard, that focuses on how the FBI harassed and surveilled King in an effort to discredit him personally and the civil rights movement more broadly, from the time of his March on Washington in 1963 to his assassination in 1968.

As a former public official who happens to be Black, nothing depicted in the documentary — as sad and tragic and as much of a violation of personal liberties as those events were — surprised me. As MLK/FBI documents, public officials at all levels, including presidents, attorneys general, governors, mayors and sheriffs, participated in efforts to undermine King and the movement.

Through its COINTELPRO campaign, for example, the FBI made it a priority to “discredit, disrupt and destroy” legitimate Black organizations and public officials. My suspicions and distrust grew when as a teenager I watched as one African American leader after another, such as Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, Black Panther activist Mark Clark and Malcolm X, a one-time leader of the Nation of Islam, die at the hands of assassins. Grand jury investigations linked the murders of Hampton and Clark to the FBI, and evidence has emerged that Malcolm X was surrounded by FBI informants at the time of his death.

The FBI’s possible connection to these and other murders is why many in the African American community, me included, have a hard time understanding former President Donald Trump’s and his MAGA supporters’ constant attacks on the FBI, labeling the bureau and other security agencies as “deep state” threats to his administration’s agenda.

The accusation that the Justice Department and the FBI are tools of liberal Democrats used to silence conservative points of view has no foundation in truth or history. The partisan vote in Congress to create a special House judiciary subcommittee on the “weaponization” of the federal government doesn’t change that reality. The committee will be chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the most conservative and pro-Trump members of Congress.

There are differences between Black victims of the FBI and allegations being made today by conservative Republicans. Civil rights protesters were fighting nonviolently for rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. White supremacists and right-wing conservatives believe in an America led by whites and view the growth of minorities as a threat to the maintenance of white power.

There’s also no comparison between the treatment of those groups and that of Blacks and organizations that advocated for self-defense like the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. Self-defense is one legitimate reason to own a weapon. But white supremacists and the FBI never viewed Blacks carrying weapons in the 1960s and today the same as they view a white person bearing arms under the Second Amendment.

Beyond this double standard, the Justice Department in the past appeared to be preoccupied with centering its investigations of white-collar crime on Black elected officials. It spent millions going after Black elected officials for questionable reasons with little return on its investment.

I can remember, from over 30 years ago, the FBI and IRS questioning me about donations I received from private-sector companies to help pay for a documentary about Atlanta City Council members visiting South Africa shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years. We wanted to offer our support and expertise on governing and building democracy for that country’s state and local public officials. The video documented the process and our interactions with the future leaders.

All was deemed proper after the investigation, but my privacy was invaded, my family suffered unnecessary stress and I had to spend money on an attorney to represent me during the investigation. This was definitely overreaching by the feds and a waste of time and money.

But I am not alone. Notable Black public officials, including former Atlanta mayors Bill Campbell, Kasim Reed and Andrew Young and the late Georgia state Sen. Julian Bond, were harassed by the feds for alleged offenses that never turned up much of anything — in the case of Campbell, who I served with on the City Council and worked with for four years, only a conviction on three minor counts of tax evasion.

In 1987, I wrote an op-ed column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioning whether there was indeed a conspiracy by the feds to target Black public officials. I asserted that there might not be and received well-deserved criticism from many circles. Now I am older and wiser and have seen the abuses up close. I can say with certainty that what happened to King and other civil rights and Black Power leaders back then was wrong. What is still happening to Black elected officials is wrong. Both need further investigation.

But I don’t want Jordan’s committee on the “weaponization” of the federal government to handle the investigations. I am sure that the type of weaponization Black leaders have faced from the FBI would be interpreted by his committee as good and necessary. Instead, I’d like to see an investigation into the abuses of power by the Justice Department and the FBI against Black Americans. If I had my way, it would be handled by a special committee of the Senate headed by Sen. Cory Booker and include among its members Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Raphael Warnock.

Only then do I believe, to quote Dr. King, that we would see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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