Civil Rights Course in Full Operation at FBI Academy

January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, legacy, and a visit to the civil rights leader’s national memorial in Washington, D.C. are part of a course at the FBI Academy.

Audio Transcript

[Singing]: “I know the one thing we did right was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize, oh Lord. Oh keep your keep your eyes on the prize, oh Lord.”

Mollie Halpern: A mountain of granite appears to grow out of the ground at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. Steps away stands a second mass of stone. Emerging from it is a chiseled likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights leader towers nearly 30 feet into the air. His arms are crossed, and in his hand he holds his iconic I Have a Dream speech—which was delivered at the nearby Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.

Martin Luther King, Jr: With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

Halpern: Those words, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope," inspired the design of the sculptures. More than a dozen of other King quotations are inscribed on a 450-foot-long wall behind the carvings.

Open to the public since 2011, the national memorial reminds visitors of Dr. King’s message that all people have the right to enjoy freedom and equality without regard to race, religion, or color.

FBI Special Agent James Hicks remembers his first trip to the memorial around this time last year.

James H. Hicks: It was a cold day. The sun was shining, but you know, of course, there weren’t any leaves on the trees or anything like that. But I do remember it being very sunny. It was a beautiful day overall.

Halpern: At the time, Hicks was in the FBI Academy undergoing grueling training to become a special agent. He and other trainees left Quantico for the memorial as part of a course called “Decision-Making, Core Values, and Leadership: A Civil Rights Case Study.”

It’s not just a fun field trip or an excuse to get out of classes about policy, procedure, and law.

The course was borne out of FBI Director James Comey’s vision for every new agent and analyst to see the memorial in person so that they intimately comprehend the importance of keeping King’s legacy alive.

And it certainly was an intimate experience for Hicks.

Hicks: It was probably one of the more moving experiences that we had at the Academy. Any experience where I get a chance to learn about Dr. King’s activities and what he stood for is pretty personal for me. My mom was at the I Have a Dream speech, and so anytime I hear about Dr. King, there’s that kind of connection to my mom. It gives us a common ground and kind of lets me know where she was coming from at that time. It really helps me to appreciate it even more.

Halpern: The visit to King’s memorial and the related lessons that come with it was one of Comey's first directives as head of the FBI. Comey announced his intent at his official installation in October of 2013.

Director James Comey: I think it will serve as a different kind of lesson—one more personal to the Bureau—of the dangers in becoming untethered to oversight and accountability.

Halpern: Comey went on to say how essential it is for trainees to examine the role the FBI played during the civil rights era, the lessons learned from that time period, and how it shapes what we do today.

He says some of those lessons are hard-learned from the Bureau’s own history.

Comey: Our first half-century or so was a time of great progress and achievement for this country—and for the Bureau. But it also saw abuse and overreach—most famously with respect to Martin Luther King and others who were viewed as internal security threats.

Halpern: During that era, founding FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was suspicious King was under communist influence. As such, Hoover sought authority from then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to wiretap King. Comey keeps a copy of that paper in his office.

Comey: I keep it under the glass in my desk because it’s one page, really one paragraph. Essentially it says King’s a communist, hangs out with communists, so we need to intercept his communications. Signed by the Director at the bottom. Robert F. Kennedy signs it. Wiretap application order done.

Halpern: The wiretap application serves as a daily reminder that if the power and responsibilities entrusted to those in law enforcement are abused, then harmful consequences can result. Individuals and organizations are at risk for repeating the mistakes of the past.

Before new agents and intelligence analysts visit the memorial, they must complete the course prerequisites. The reading materials include King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in longhand. Students must watch DVDs of King, President John Kennedy’s address concerning civil rights, and more.

Owen Harris: And then when we actually convene for the course, the first half of the day is actually spent on reviewing all those materials and documents and having them facilitate a discussion about the role the FBI was playing during these particular events surrounding Dr. King and what was happening in the country at that time in general during the civil rights era.

Halpern: That’s Owen Harris, the former assistant director of the FBI’s Training Division, who retired earlier this month after more than 25 years of dedicated service to the FBI. It was under his leadership that the course was developed. The FBI collaborated on the course with the Memorial Foundation—which was responsible for the the Martin Luther King Memorial—and the National Park Service.

Harris: Then we take all the students out to the King Memorial. There are various quotes on the memorial. So we actually break up into groups and we have a facilitated discussion about the particular quotes themselves, and each group is responsible for a different quote. And they have researched the quote, and they talk about the meaning—what was happening, what inspired that particular quote from Dr. King. So it’s really a progressive facilitated discussion to really get the students thinking about this.

Halpern: Putting the quotes in context was one of the highlights of the visit for Hicks.

Hicks: They were really profound. A couple of them stood out to me—one of them was, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” Seeing phrases like that really struck a chord with me. And I know in my law enforcement career, justice is something that we strive for.

Halpern: Justice was not achieved in the 1955 Emmitt Till case in Mississippi. The 14-year-old black boy was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. An all-white, all-male jury did not prosecute the two men who eventually confessed to the crimes.

Bob Dylan [singing]: For the jury found them innocent/and the brothers they went free/while Emmett’s body floats the foam/of a Jim Crow southern sea.

Halpern: Trainees perform a case study of the Emmitt Till investigation. The combined elements of the course—from the case study to the memorial visit—make it successful. Assistant Director of the Training Division Mark Morgan says the lessons from the civil rights era of the past help prepare FBI employees for their futures.

Mark A. Morgan: From the first days of being part of the FBI, they go on a course—a career-long endeavor—to take a look at and always understand that professional judgment, ethical decision making, and leadership are the hallmarks of what we have to do as FBI employees.

Halpern: By the end of the course, trainees understand how the challenges of that period provided the basis for the FBI’s core values, which serve as a guide to FBI employees of how they conduct themselves and treat others. The FBI’s core values are:

Morgan: Rigorous obedience to the Constitution of the United States, respect for the dignity of all those we protect, compassion, fairness, uncompromising personal and institutional integrity, accountability, leadership, and diversity.

Halpern: Director Comey added diversity to the list just last year.

Comey: Our individual backgrounds reflect the variety that is the backbone and the strength of this amazing country. Diversity makes us stronger. It makes us more effective as an organization. We can make better decisions when we consider different perspectives and bring our collective experiences to bear.

Halpern: The course is in full operation and is now a staple at the FBI Academy. Since trainees’ inaugural visit to the King memorial in August of 2014, 852 FBI agents and analysts have taken the Comey-directed course. Some of them now serve in the FBI’s civil rights program, which is composed of four subprograms: hate crimes, color of law violations, human trafficking, and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Stephen Kam is the chief of the Civil Rights Unit.

Stephen E. Kam: It’s so important for the FBI to have such a strong response when it comes to these sorts of crimes.

Halpern: The program relies heavily on outreach.

Kam: We have not only FBI agents and analysts working with us but we partner heavily with state and locals as far as task forces and working groups. We partner with non-governmental organizations—not only the ones that provide services to victims but also many of the ones that represent many of the diverse communities that we service.

Halpern: While the FBI is the primary federal agency responsible for investigating violations of federal civil rights statutes, that wasn’t always the case. The scope of the FBI’s responsibilities in this area expanded over the years as the public sentiment began to change.

The turning point came in June of 1964, when two of the FBI’s civil rights investigations in Mississippi began to draw national attention. One seminal case was the murder of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. The other case involved three civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—who disappeared after visiting a church a Ku Klux Klan had torched. The investigation, called MIBURN, for Mississippi Burning, provided impetus for the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. The measure gave the FBI new federal laws with which to fight civil rights violations.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all. Thank you and good night.

Halpern: Those were President Lyndon Johnson’s remarks when he signed the Civil Rights Bill in July of that year.

Less than a month before the signing, President Johnson told Director J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI should have a stronger official presence in Mississippi. Hoover ordered one of his special agents in charge to scout out potential rentals for a new office in the state. Preparations were completed on July 10, 1964. Director Hoover himself attended the re-opening of the Jackson Division to show the Bureau’s commitment to its civil rights and other investigative work in the state.

By the late 1960s, the FBI played an influential role in enabling African-Americans to vote, serve on juries, and use public accommodations on an equal basis.

Fast forward to 2008—that’s when President George Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act into law. The new legislation empowered the FBI to re-open murder cases that happened during the civil rights movement. Stephen Kam...

Kam: The FBI partnered with a bunch of civic organizations, we canvassed local prosecutors and police departments looking for potential cases that could be investigated under this authority. We identified approximately 112 cases, and we’ve concluded our investigation in the vast majority of those cases.

Halpern: The resolve of the FBI to pursue the criminals until they’re caught is exemplified through the MIBURN case I spoke of earlier. It’s the same case that inspired the movie Mississippi Burning. One of the major conspirators in that case, who had gone free for decades, was eventually brought to justice. Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in June 2005.

The FBI also investigated the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, King was struck with a single shot in the neck. Holding the rifle was James Earl Ray, who would be added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and eventually arrested.

King was 39 years old when his life was taken. Even in his death, King continues to inspire. People like Special Agent James Hicks and his FBI colleagues strive to keep his dreams alive.

Hicks: Our goal is to hang onto certain ideals that are relevant—no matter what decade it is, no matter what the current societal climate is, we want to hang on to those values. As a black male, you realize that what Dr. King did for civil rights was absolutely amazing, and it has a direct impact on the opportunities that I have today.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

Joan Baez [singing]: We shall overcome/We shall overcome/We shall overcome, some day./Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/That we shall overcome, some day.

Halpern: This and three other FBI podcasts can be found on the FBI website. Listen at With Inside the FBI, I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.

Related information:

-FBI, This Week podcast

-More on the FBI's Civil Rights program

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