When the FBI told MLK to kill himself (who are they targeting now?)


We've known for years that the FBI spied on Martin Luther King's personal life and sent him an anonymous letter in 1964 threatening to out him for his sexual indiscretions unless he killed himself in 34 days. Now we have an unredacted version of the notorious letter.

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The Struggle in Black and White: Activist Photographers Who Fought for Civil Rights


Bob Fitch snapped this picture of a sheriff’s deputy pursuing photographer Matt Herron during a protest in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1966. Courtesy the Bob Fitch Photography Archive.

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly says: "My colleague Hunter Oatman-Stanford has just published an article about the photographers who documented the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. These photographers, Hunter learned, were deeply committed to the cause of Civil Rights, but their job was not be be heroes—they were expected to get their photos back to the offices of CORE, SNCC, and the NAACP, so they could be distributed to publications around the country in order to get the message out about what was going on down South."

Although organizations like SNCC supplied photos to both black and white publications, almost all their photographers were white men, which seems surprising for a group promoting integration at all levels of society. “With very few exceptions, we were white,” says Matt Herron, another prominent civil-rights photographer. “It was obviously very dangerous for a black photographer to shoot a demonstration or some public event. Also, to be a freelance photographer in those days, particularly a photojournalist, it required equipment, money, and spare time to teach yourself the craft. Those resources were not generally available to black kids.”

Herron had previously worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York, where he’d become one of Minor White’s students, learning the ins and outs of developing, printing, and photographic aesthetics. Through White, Herron would eventually meet his mentor, Dorothea Lange, who encouraged his interest in social documentary photography. By the early 1960s, Herron was freelancing as a photographer, pitching stories to magazines like “LIFE” and “Look.” “Dorothea convinced me that photography could be not just a profession but a way of life, and that I could marry my social concerns to my desire to be a photographer,” Herron says.

Following in the footsteps of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers of the 1930s, Herron formed the Southern Documentary Project, a group of five photographers dedicated to recording everyday life under segregation. “In the summer of ’64, the five of us traveled throughout the South but mostly in Mississippi, shooting the major events of the Freedom Summer, but also, more broadly, trying to document what black life was like in the South,” says Herron. His most recent book, Mississippi Eyes, tells the story of that tumultuous summer.

The missing body of Addie Mae Collins

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a major event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite at the church, which was a major organizing center for the black community and civil rights protests. The resulting explosion killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

That part of the story is pretty well-known. What isn't well known is the fact that one of those girls, Addie Mae Collins, may well have been a victim of racism after her death, thanks to a longstanding tradition where white medical schools raided black cemeteries for dissection cadavers. I happened to stumble across this story last week, while reading Harriet Washington's book, Medical Apartheid. The tale, and how it connects to racism both historical and modern, haunted me all day yesterday.

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Why Americans should be worried about state surveillance

As the Prism/NSA leaks story unfolds, many Americans are left with a cynical "are you surprised?" response that rather misses the point. Recent American history is full of stories of spies using surveillance to target civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, who was heavily surveilled during the Kennedy administration, culminating with the FBI sending him an anonymous package with evidence of his adultery and a note telling him to kill himself.

Here's a video and transcript of an excellent Chris Hayes editorial on MSNBC in which Hayes reminds us that America's spooks can and do use intelligence to attack causes that are later seen as being on the side of justice:

In 1964, after Hoover called King the most "notorious liar in the country" in a press conference, a package was sent to King in the mail, a package the House select committee ultimately traced back to the FBI. Inside this package, one of the most remarkable artifacts in American history was an anonymous letter addressed to Martin Luther King and a copy of an electronic surveillance tape apparently to lend credence to threats of exposure of derogatory personal information made in the letter. We don't know to this day for sure what was on that tape. The heavy speculation throughout the years it was of personal and sexual nature recorded by a device planted in Dr. King's hotel room.

The letter that came with the tape read in part, "you know you are complete fraud and a great liability to all of us negroes. The American public will know you for what you are, an evil abnormal beast. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation." The committee considered it highly likely that Director Hoover had before the fact knowledge of the action.

So that's a letter encouraging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself, sent to King from the FBI. This happened in American history. It's just one example out of many of how the full weight of the surveillance state constructed to fight the cold war was used against the people working for racial equality. It may have been constructed to defeat the Russians and the genuine threat of global communism, but it was deployed on people like Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Chris Hayes: "It's not some Orwellian abstraction. It's America's history" (via Making Light)

Forced internment of British civilians during World War II

Something I didn't know about world history: During World War II, the British government rounded up thousands of its own citizens — people of German, Austrian, or Italian ancestry. Some were put into camps, others deported to Canada and Australia. Others were simply labeled as potential enemies and spied upon. The really crazy part: Many of these people were Jewish refugees who had become citizens of Britain in order to get away from the Nazis. (Via Carol Roth)

Minnesota defeats discriminatory marriage amendment

Last night, Minnesota became the first state to vote against a constitutional amendment banning gays and lesbians from marrying. We still don't have marriage equality in this state. But two other states — Maine and Maryland — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage and a third, Washington, looks like it might do the same. Meanwhile, Iowans voted to retain a judge who played a role in making same sex marriage legal in that state.

To celebrate — especially on the Minnesota front, where we also rejected a voter ID amendment — I present this video of the Swedish Chef making meatballs.

Republican revisionism and civil rights history

Jonathan Chait takes to New York Magazine to explain how a revisionist version of American civil rights history paints the Republicans as the party of racial equality:

The civil rights movement, once a controversial left-wing fringe, has grown deeply embedded into the fabric of our national story. This is a salutary development, but a problematic one for conservatives, who are the direct political descendants of (and, in the case of some of the older members of the movement, the exact same people as) the strident opponents of the civil rights movement. It has thus become necessary for conservatives to craft an alternative story, one that absolves their own ideology of any guilt. The right has dutifully set itself to its task, circulating its convoluted version of history, honing it to the point where it can be repeated by any defensive College Republican in his dorm room.

The Conservative Fantasy History of Civil Rights (via Making Light)

Catholic students fight back against archdiocese's anti-family rhetoric

Minneapolis' Catholic DeLaSalle High School had a mandatory assembly recently for its senior class, to educate the students on what marriage is and what a family ought to look like. As you might guess, this also meant telling the students who didn't count as a family and why some families were bad.

It didn't go over very well, according to a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

"The first three-quarters of the presentation were really good," said Bliss. "They talked about what is marriage and how marriage helps us as a society. Then it started going downhill when they started talking about single parents and adopted kids. They didn't directly say it, but they implied that kids who are adopted or live with single parents are less than kids with two parents of the opposite sex. They implied that a 'normal' family is the best family."

"When they finally got to gay marriage, [students] were really upset," said Bliss. "You could look around the room and feel the anger. My friend who is a lesbian started crying, and people were crying in the bathroom."

Bliss was one of several students who stood up to argue with the representatives from the archdiocese. One girl held up a sign that said, "I love my moms."

It's not a coincidence that this assembly was mandatory for seniors only. Minnesota will be voting on a marriage amendment this year. In fact, the presenters from the archdiocese tried to bring that issue up, but didn't get much of a chance to talk about it because of students—politely and respectively—challenging the rhetoric and asking pointed questions about evidence.

Also not random chance: The fact that high school students would challenge the Bishops on these issues to begin with. There is broad support for gay marriage among people under 30. In fact, multiple polls have shown that somewhere between 55% and 65% of all people under 30 support gay marriage. Like the seniors at DeLaSalle, a majority of young Americans get that this isn't a political football, it's a civil rights issue.

Read the Minneapolis Star-Tribune story about what happened at DeLaSalle High School.

See two polls on gay marriage from 2010 and 2011.

Via Slacktivist

CIA threat-tracking technology is fascinating, creepy

Palantir is security software that helps CIA analysts take innocuous events (man comes to U.S. on temporary visa, man takes flight training classes, man buys one-way ticket from Boston to California) and put them into a context where potential threats can become more apparent (the one man is actually several, and they're all on the same flight).

The technology is based on a system developed by PayPal, and it's interesting because it's one of the few examples of counter-terrorism work that is actually proactive. Instead of adding increasingly elaborate airport security rules that are merely responses to the most recently exposed plot, a program like Palantir has the potential to spot plots in the making with less hassle to the general public. That could make it a good thing. On the other hand, Palantir comes with plenty of its own privacy and civil rights concerns. This Bloomberg BusinessWeek story is pretty "rah rah rah" in tone, ironically cheering on all the things that make Palantir seem rather creepy to me. But it is a great example of why countering terrorism is really just one long string of incredibly difficult choices. What matters more, who makes that call, and how do we balance a reasonable desire for safety with a reasonable desire to not be creeped the hell out by our own government?

In October, a foreign national named Mike Fikri purchased a one-way plane ticket from Cairo to Miami, where he rented a condo. Over the previous few weeks, he’d made a number of large withdrawals from a Russian bank account and placed repeated calls to a few people in Syria. More recently, he rented a truck, drove to Orlando, and visited Walt Disney World by himself. As numerous security videos indicate, he did not frolic at the happiest place on earth. He spent his day taking pictures of crowded plazas and gate areas.

None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.

As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.

Fikri isn’t real—he’s the John Doe example Palantir uses in product demonstrations that lay out such hypothetical examples. The demos let the company show off its technology without revealing the sensitive work of its clients.

Teenager won't be punished for saying mean things about state governor

Last week, Kansas teenager Emma Sullivan posted a snarky tweet about the state's governor Sam Brownback, which, naturally, led to Brownback's staffers pressuring her principal to make her apologize on threat of punishment. Apparently, at some point during the holiday weekend, the school district noticed this would violate Sullivan's free speech rights. They've announced that she will not be forced to apologize and will not be punished for her tweet. Sullivan now has more Twitter followers than Governor Sam Brownback.