WASHINGTON This is just a reminder of how bad things can become before they get better. File it under the heading "Lest we forget."
In the turbulent summer of 1964, when a determined new president, Lyndon Johnson, was struggling to adopt what would become the most important civil-rights legislation since the Civil War, the FBI already had a long record of surveillance of Johnson's partner in the legislative effort, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King's hotel rooms and other venues had been bugged on an order from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and authorized by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and tacitly approved of by President John F. Kennedy.
Robert Kennedy's approval of the King surveillance came after Hoover informed him that the FBI was aware that President Kennedy was having an ardent affair with a woman with close ties to Mafia don Sam Giancana.
With a difficult re-election contest facing them, the implications were clear. A revelation of John Kennedy's relationship with Judith Campbell (later Exner) would have been devastating to the president's chances, particularly since Campbell had carried messages between the White House and Giancana.
Even after Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of 1963, elevating Johnson to the presidency, the intrusion into the life of the famed leader, whose courage was finally to bring a measure of true equality to millions of black Americans, continued.
Hoover was convinced that anti-American forces, more emphatically outside communist influences, were using King, an unfounded allegation easily incubated in the heat and paranoia of the Cold War and King's unceasing and effective efforts to reorder the possibilities for fellow blacks.
In fact, during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., that August, the FBI had placed listening devices in King's hotel suite and Johnson had used bureau agents, some of whom posed as delegates on the convention floor, as informants.
By then, Johnson believed that Robert Kennedy was a political threat. His suspicions seemed confirmed when an appearance by Kennedy brought a standing ovation that rolled over the cavernous Atlantic City Convention Center as delegates ignored every effort to break it off.
The unjustified intrusion into King's personal life and Hoover's misuse of his almost dictatorial authority to slow the momentum of the civil-rights movement were among the most despicable incidents in the annals of the bureau.
All this came to mind when just before King's birthday and the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some blacks became upset over what they viewed as efforts to downgrade King's influence in the passage of the 1964 legislation and give all the credit to Johnson. The debate, which for a few moments engulfed the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, stemmed from a remark by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that King's dreams became reality when Johnson got the bill passed.
Actually, King and Johnson deserve equal credit. The bill's difficult passage in Congress was brought about because of a mutual dependency. Johnson would not have succeeded without King's unceasing campaign for civil rights that finally awakened millions of Americans to continuing injustices. And King needed Johnson's official support and skillful legislative maneuvering.
The reality of this partnership, of course, is that it took place with both men not quite trusting the other, and in an atmosphere rife with political and other turmoil. That Johnson, who was well aware of the FBI's activities, could nevertheless move forward is testimony to the Texan's masterful ability to put aside even such a seemingly bizarre situation to achieve what he considered, correctly, was the better good.
At the same time, King had clearly shown that he was not about to cave in to the latest attempts to derail his hopes. He used Johnson just as Johnson had used him. We are all certainly better off for the alliance, as unholy as it might have seemed to some blacks and whites.Ironically, the Kennedy brothers became major icons for African-Americans, who apparently chose, if they knew of it, to overlook their role in this ugly chapter of history. Johnson never received the credit he was due for bucking his own Southern roots to bring King's dreams to statutory reality. That this injustice continues is not surprising given the national passion for historic revisionism.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.