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Aspiring agents learn from mistakes of FBI's 'shameful' investigation of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dressed in plainclothes to blend in with tourists at the National Mall, a few dozen FBI agents in training fanned out across the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on an unusual mission. 

Their months-long training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., covers target practice, boxing, surveillance and self-defense.

But these trainees were dispatched on a more personal quest at the Washington memorial: pick the most inspirational King quote among those etched into stone slabs and then share their insights during a brief, touchy-feely rap session in the shadow of the slain civil rights leader’s statue. 

The field trip capped one of the newest exercises added to the training for aspiring agents and analysts. It’s a daylong dive into the FBI’s questionable investigation into King, including a surprisingly frank review into improper wiretapping, harassment, abuse of power and racially motivated double standards.

The training is the brainchild of FBI Director James B. Comey, who in 2014 began mandating this institutional introspection into what he called the “shameful” probe of King by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, including delving into King’s sex life and secretly trying to destroy his reputation. 

FBI trainees already received other forms of cultural-sensitivity training, such as a visit to the National Holocaust Museum to examine the role German law enforcement played in one of humanity’s greatest crimes. 

But Comey felt that didn’t adequately address issues of power and corruption in a way “that would hit home,” said Cynthia DeWitte, a curriculum manager at the FBI academy. By directly and openly confronting the agency’s own struggles against racism, Comey hoped to prevent the FBI from repeating its past mistakes.

​​"We wanted to provide a lesson of what happens when power is abused and the responsibility that comes with being in the FBI,” DeWitte said. “We wanted this to be more than a field trip."

The MLK lesson was added to the FBI curriculum before the deadly 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. But it has taken on even greater significance after a string of deadly  encounters between police in several states and the minority communities they serve. The Justice Department now often finds itself deciding whether to intervene after such clashes, either by filing a civil-rights case against officers or pushing for reforms at local police departments, as it did recently in Baltimore.

During a recent FBI training, instructor Nathan Smith began by telling 36 would-be agents and 14 aspiring analysts about some of the agency’s past successes in protecting civil rights, such as cracking down against the Klu Klux Klan and investigating the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

But Smith, who joined the FBI in 2005 as an analyst and has been teaching various courses at the academy over the last two years, then went on to explore some of the internal breakdowns and occasional double standards that arose from racial prejudice or investigations into communist sympathizers.

He pointed to the FBI’s reaction to the gruesome 1955 kidnapping and slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old killed for allegedly flirting with a white store clerk. Two suspects were acquitted by an all-white jury despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt.

Despite demands for federal intervention, Hoover demurred, explaining that he believed communists were behind the agitation surrounding the case and concluding that the boy had not been deprived of his constitutional rights.

“There has been no allegation made that the victim has been subjected to the deprivation of any right or privilege which is secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” Hoover said.

Smith shook his head as he repeated the director’s assessment.

“The child was tied to a cotton instrument,” Smith said, his voice rising. “Barbed wire was wrapped around his neck, and he had been shot in the head, pulled out of his bed in the middle of the night. And he was not deprived of his rights?”

Smith contrasted the Till case with the FBI’s vastly different handling of the high-profile abduction and murder in 1932 of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son. The agency invested tremendous resources in the case, even before Congress granted it explicit jurisdiction to investigate such crimes, Smith said.

“Did we let the specifics of the law keep us out out of the Lindbergh case?  No,” Smith said. “We were doing a good thing. We don’t want toddlers being stolen out of the crib. But what was different?”

“A white male requested assistance,” said one would-be analyst.

“So race. What else?”

“Lindbergh was a public figure,” said another student.

“Correct,” Smith said. “Fame and race. Neither case had FBI jurisdiction. We made a proactive choice. There wasn’t the same interest level in Emmett Till.”

Is it any wonder, Smith asked, that minority communities remain skeptical about the integrity of law enforcement investigations, especially those of police-involved shootings.

“When you have this kind of history, it’s very hard to trust the justice system because the justice system has been a perpetrator of injustice on too many occasions,” he said.

The class next shifted to the bureau’s vexing investigation of King, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated four years later. 

Before, class trainees are expected to have read an Atlantic magazine piece on the FBI’s efforts to pressure a Massachusetts college president to drop King as its 1964 commencement speaker and King’s moving ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  They also watched several documentaries that highlight the struggles of the civil rights movement; during the lecture, they viewed a 2015 speech by Comey at Georgetown on race, bias and policing. 

Trainees learn that agents not only trailed King, but also bugged his phones and hotel rooms. The basis for the wiretapping was an allegation that King was associated with a lawyer who had once worked for the Communist Party of America.

“Is it illegal to be a communist?” Smith asked the class, drawing attention to the shaky legal grounds.

“No,” several answered.

The memo authorizing the surveillance was just six sentences long and signed in October 1963 by Hoover and Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy. Today such requests require lengthy legal justifications that must be approved by a federal judge.

Comey has said he keeps a copy of the King surveillance memo on his desk as a reminder of “what we as humans are capable of and why it is vital that power be overseen, be constrained and be be checked.”

David Garrow, author of "The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King Jr.,” said it was admirable that the bureau would teach its would-be agents and analysts about the abuses of its power.

However, Garrow wondered whether the agency was addressing all the right lessons. The FBI should also focus on how it relied too heavily on outdated information from informants and seemed primarily interested in collecting damaging personal information. They also ignored concerns raised by field agents who felt there was no evidence he was under the influence of communists, Garrow said.

According to Smith and the class materials, the FBI’s prurient interest in King’s extramarital sex life eventually trumped their concerns about his potential ties to communism. 

In late 1964, one of Hoover’s top deputies took the extraordinary step of sending an anonymous and threatening handwritten letter to King. The missive, which included a package of embarrassing tape recordings of King’s sexual exploits, called King “a colossal fraud and evil” and urged him to “lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure.”

“There is only one thing left for you to do,” concluded the letter, a copy of which was dug up by Yale historian Beverly Gage two years ago. “You know what it is.”

Historians debate whether the bureau was urging King to drop out of the civil rights movement or to kill himself.

The extent of the FBI’s efforts to destroy King proved shocking to several of the future FBI agents and analysts.

“It’s sad to see injustice,” said Alysse, 30, an analyst, who like all the would-be agents interviewed was only allowed to provide a first name for security reasons. “We are supposed to help those who don’t have a voice.”

Others said they were not at all surprised by the day’s lessons — even if they hadn’t heard about the FBI’s targeting of King.

“It was a different day and age,” said Rafael, a 33-year-old former police officer in Georgia, adding that as a black man he had experienced his share of discrimination. “It’s important to know, though.”

After the lecture, the aspiring agent and his colleagues got on a bus and headed for the memorial to find a quote that spoke to them on a personal level — from a man their predecessors sought to discredit, or worse.

Like many others in his class, Rafael settled on one that he said spoke volumes about what they had been taught that morning, about doing the right thing, especially when it’s hard: "The ultimate measure of a man,” King said, “is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Twitter: @delwilber

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