Rand Paul Is Right When He Likens Obama-Era Surveillance to Hoover’s Spying on Civil Rights Leaders

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March 24 2014 6:18 PM

Is Rand Paul’s MLK Analogy Offensive?

The Kentucky senator is right when he likens Obama-era surveillance to Hoover’s spying on civil rights leaders.

Rand Paul and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rand Paul took a swing at Obama, comparing the NSA's surveillance to Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the civil rights movement.

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Rand Paul photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; MLK photo by AFP/Getty Images

At times, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul can have all the tact and graciousness of an arrogant college student. He’ll talk as if no one else could have his insight or perception, leading to embarrassments like last year’s speech at Howard University, where he lectured black politics students on the civil rights record of the Republican Party.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

He almost put a foot in it again last week, during an address to the College Republicans at the University of California, Berkeley. “I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA,” he said, taking a swing at Obama, “Certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause.”

It was a glib line, and the objections were what you’d expect. “Is a black president more responsible for stopping inappropriate NSA spying than a white one?,” wrote Zerlina Maxwell for the Grio, “This issue is complicated enough that it doesn’t need Senator Paul’s cheap shot on the president invoking race, when it’s not relevant.” Likewise, at Salon, Elias Isquith condemned Paul for “whitesplaining Martin Luther King, Jr. to the first African American president,” especially given Paul’s “infamous” attack on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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Maxwell and Isquith have a point, but so does Paul.

Barack Obama is the direct product of the civil rights movement, and without its hard work and sacrifice, his rise to the White House couldn’t have happened. Obama is quick to admit this. In 2007, shortly after announcing his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he gave a speech to mark the anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., where protesters—led by a young John Lewis—withstood the blows of segregationists.

“It’s because they marched that I got the kind of education I got, that I got a law degree, and a seat in the Illinois Senate and ultimately in the United States Senate,” he told the audience. “I’m here because somebody marched for our freedom. I’m here because y’all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

He sounded a similar note last year, while commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “Because they marched,” he said, “city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”

We can argue all day over the goals of the civil rights movement and the extent to which its leaders fought for economic as well as social equality. There’s no question, however, of Barack Obama’s view as it relates to his life: He sees himself as the embodiment of their legacy, someone who represents the extent to which they won the battle.

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