This coming Monday, Jan 16th, marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Every year, we take the third Monday of January and use it to remember the life and legacy of the man who changed the face of America.
The impact that Dr. King had on all of our lives is difficult to overestimate. There is perhaps no single individual in living memory that has so successfully changed the system to encourage balance and fairness.
But it’s also important to remember that Dr. King wasn’t always so universally revered.
While fighting for civil rights, he was a threat to the status quo, and found himself an enemy of those whose vested interests he threatened.
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI began intense surveillance of Dr. King. They wiretapped his hotel rooms, recorded private conversations and released details of his extramarital affairs in an attempt to undermine him and his cause.
Of course, the intention was not just to trap Dr. King. There are many other civil rights leaders and political activists who were surveilled by the authorities.
Hoover’s intention in this specific situation was to eradicate grassroots movements that challenged the authority of the government regarding one of the most important topics in human history. Essentially, it was to take power out of the hands of ordinary people.
This is what widespread surveillance of citizens is intended to do today.
There’s an oft-repeated belief that if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from widespread surveillance.
But political dissent is not a crime, and yet is punished harshly in a number of states around the world.
The definition of “wrong” is usually dictated by those in power. And those in power are often threatened by the actions of ordinary citizens, and are therefore more likely to pass laws to label those actions as “wrong”.
If there is only one thing that we should have learned from Dr. King’s achievements, it is that we as citizens have every right to question the status quo, and to voice our concerns about the way we are treated. When we know that we are being watched at every turn, we are less likely to ask these questions, or voice these concerns.
Surveillance has been used historically to suppress freedom.
On the day we remember the inimitable Martin Luther King Jr, we should also remember this:
Surveillance did not suppress Dr. King, and we should not let it suppress us either.