Most Americans see Martin Luther King as an American hero and we celebrate him, his accomplishments, and the broad swath of civil rights progress on the third Monday of each February. This national celebration was begun about 20 years ago, and I remember getting a haircut in a barber shop in Deer Park, Texas on the very first offical MLK day. The local residents in the shop were bemused by the celebration and I particularly remember hearing the barber and one resident talking about the Clinton’s decision to put Chelsea Clinton into a private school instead of the Public Schools of Washnington D.C. What was the connection between the Clinton’s school preferrence and Dr. King? To these two residents of Texas, the decision by the then POTUS, was to protect young Chelsea from the inevitable rape (s) that would have happened in the predominately black D.C Public School system. At the time I was shocked and apalled, but I should have remembered that experience when Barack Obama was elected President. The racist sentiment I heard expressed in the barber shop in Deer Park is apparently widely held and has been exploited masterfully by the Republican party and others who would wish to see Obama fail. Today my country is splintered worse than I can remember.
One of the principle policy controversies of Barak Obama’s second term is the question of the individual citizen’s expectation of privacy from surveillance as a result of National Security Administration, NSA, anti-terrorism practices. As a result of the probably criminal actions of Edward Snowden, America has become aware that their phone calls, text messages, and emails are subject to inclusion into a body of stored available information that the NSA considers “a rich data set awaiting exploitation.” It should go without saying that none of us oppose defending our families against threats of terrorism, but the disagreement lies in the placement of the line designating exactly how safe we are to be. Many Americans apparently are willing to go to more extreme lenghts to combat Terror than other Americans.
In this high technology age the American citizen has been warned continuously about the threats to our privacy from technology. Martin Luther King’s phone was tapped and he was watched, followed, and photographed everywhere he went. When the FBI learned that he had marital infidelity that he would likely wish to be kept secret, it has been documented that Dr. King was contacted and threatened with national exposure and humiliation. In that age’s journalistic climate, the FBI failed to find national media outlets willing to slander the leader that way. The media access would certainly be there today.
The phone recordings of MLK would have required a judicial finding of probable cause in the 1960’s, but today each of us is subject to having our texts, emails and phone records stored for investigative retrieval. It is true that as of now, those records are only used in the battle against terrorism, but many Americans are concerned nonetheless. The fourth Ammendment protections for our privacy were a result of a tyranical authority (The British,) sbuding their statutory authority in the search of people’s homes. The standard defense of these intrusions is the refrain, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.” Unfortunately this belief ignores our experience with the British 200 years ago and our experience with our own government in this century. For evidence we need only look as far back as MLK. It has since been learned that J Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s autocratic head for fifty years through the middle of that century, ‘snooped’ on anyone he felt he could use to keep and facilitate even more power for himself. All in the name of patriotism.
We also know that the famous Miranda decision by the United States Supreme court in the same era was an effort to curb the influence of police authorities. Prior to Miranda, police agencies were empowered to go to any length necessary to elicit a confession. So throughout all of American history until 50 years ago, law enforcement at both the local and national levels were accustomed to acting with very little concern for the legal and civil needs of the individual. These practices existed because the majority of Americans were content with their refrain. Can it be possible that a large number of Americans, a majority even, will support coninued broadening of police powers?
We should mark this celebration of Martin Luther King Day with a renewed assertion of our own civil rights. We must challenge those who believe that the government is to be trusted to decide which individual’s privacy is to be protected and which citizen will have no protection against the leviathan state. In MLK’s day, the motivation of the various state agencies was anticommunism, and less overtly the continued segregation and oppression of non-white Americans. Today the overt motive has changed, but we have to recognize the potential for any individual to be unjustly targeted by this overzealous anti-individual fervor.