In a dramatic appearance at FBI headquarters Tuesday, Coretta Scott King said FBI attempts to smear her slain husband continued after his death and she credited the agency's embattled director, William S. Sessions, with moving the bureau away from such tactics.
"I can stand here before you with faith that the FBI of the 1990s has turned its back on the abuses of the Hoover era," said King, who spoke at the FBI's commemoration of Black History Month. She characterized her selection to deliver the address as "ironic."
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who died nearly 21 years ago and for whom the FBI headquarters building is named, denounced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as "the most notorious liar in the country" in 1965 after King questioned the FBI's commitment to civil rights cases.
Under Hoover, the FBI undertook a worldwide campaign to discredit King, including sending materials to his wife questioning his fidelity. The campaign extended to Oslo where King went to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
His widow, who heads the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, dismissed a Justice Department investigation that concluded Sessions had repeatedly abused his office. She characterized the probe as "the current campaign to discredit you."
"History will show you stood firm for a democratic and inclusive FBI," King said, producing applause and cheers from the predominantly black audience of about 550 jammed into the headquarters auditorium.
King's appearance came as Sessions issued a new blast at the investigation by the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility, despite requests by the White House and Justice Department to avoid further public comment until the matter is reviewed by the new attorney general. President Clinton has nominated Miami prosecutor Janet Reno for the post and she is awaiting Senate confirmation proceedings.
In a Teletype to all employees, Sessions denied Justice Department findings that he had engaged in a "sham" arrangement to avoid paying taxes for his use of an FBI limousine that brings him to and from work.
Sessions had said he was following the opinion of FBI legal counsel Joseph R. Davis, who concluded that the FBI director would be eligible for a law enforcement tax exemption if he carried a firearm in the vehicle, which he did by placing an unloaded gun in a briefcase in the trunk.
But in his Teletype, Sessions distanced himself from that opinion, saying he has obtained a "thorough and careful" analysis by expert tax lawyers who suggested that he owes no additional taxes and actually should receive a tax refund.
Senior FBI officials at headquarters and in several field offices expressed dismay over Sessions' Teletype communication, saying he had distorted the conclusions of the investigation and presented intentionally misleading information in his defense.
At the headquarters ceremony, the audience murmured assent and surprise when King observed that FBI files show that agents followed her well into the 1970s, several years after her husband's assassination in 1968.
"No one could have predicted 20 years ago that the FBI would become a friend and supporter of the civil rights and human rights movement," King said. "This transformation has succeeded in totally reversing the policies of the FBI. This monumental change is certainly of historic proportions." King credited William H. Webster, who headed the FBI for nearly 10 years before Sessions took over in 1987, for "helping to begin the diversification of the FBI."
"But I give most of the credit to your current director, William Sessions, who has implemented even more far-reaching reforms to make the FBI look and act more like America," she said.
Stating that she had turned down previous invitations to speak at FBI headquarters, King said she never would have accepted "if it weren't for your present director," a comment that drew more applause and cheers.