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January 25, 2011

The CIA invites a poet to an MLK party


Last week, the Pentagon‘s top lawyer told a packed auditorium that Dr. Martin Luther King, if alive today, would support American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”

The lawyer, Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson, should have known better: he graduated from Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, where he was a fellow student of Martin Luther King III. The world was complicated in the 1960s, too, and King still managed to be unequivocal. “The greatest purveyor of violence on earth,” he said, “is my own government.”

CIA director Leon E. Panetta and poet Nikki Giovanni

But the military establishment’s embrace of King doesn’t end with the Pentagon. Friday brought news, via the “Picture of the Day” on PW Daily, that the CIA hosts an “annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” And, to make matters more bizarre: the Agency invited poet Nikki Giovanni, who “inspired hundreds of Agency employees with the story of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, about whom Giovanni wrote an award-winning children’s book, Rosa.”

The fact that the CIA hosts an MLK event is surprising: according to William Pepper’s An Act of State, the agency helped spy on King, his family, and thousands in the civil rights movement by giving material support to a large and illegal domestic eavesdropping program led by the US Army Intelligence Command. (King was also, as is well known, trailed for years by the FBI, which targeted him as part of COINTELPRO.)

But what about Giovanni: Why would a poet who says she was inspired by the civil rights and black power movements agree to speak at the CIA?

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.