The History of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the F.B.I.

01/20/2014 08:43 pm ET | Updated Mar 22, 2014

Most years, I celebrate the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior's birthday by reprinting excerpts of his speeches, in an attempt to combat the continued watering-down of his legacy into nothing short of warm fuzzy memories that he was fighting for "equality" in some sort of non-confrontational way. You will be able to see this sort of gauzy, carefully-edited theme on just about any network news broadcast this evening, and it is a real shame because it ignores the radical positions King bravely took in life.

But this year, the focus really needs to be on how the federal government saw King. Most especially since, over the weekend, there was what seemed like a concerted effort by congressional Republicans to state (without a shred of evidence or facts to back it up) that Edward Snowden was somehow a sinister foreign agent of, perhaps... oh, I don't know... Russia? This sort of innuendo campaign is, sadly, not a recent development in American politics. Which brings us back to King, and J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I.

Almost immediately after Martin Luther King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Council (S.C.L.C.) in 1957, the F.B.I. began a trail of internal memos warning that the group was "a likely target for communist infiltration." Within a year, King had his own personal F.B.I. file. But it wasn't until 1962 that surveillance of King would be ratcheted up -- which was approved personally by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. By November of 1963, all of King's phones -- both at home and at the S.C.L.C.'s offices -- would be wiretapped.

Earlier that year, King gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The head of the F.B.I.'s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) wrote, shortly after he heard this speech, "it may be unrealistic to limit [the F.B.I.'s actions against King] to legalistic proofs that would stand up in court or before Congressional Committees."

He might have been referring to actions the F.B.I. had already taken, in an attempt to smear King as a communist dupe. Propaganda (or disinformational "news stories") purporting to show the S.C.L.C.'s "communist connections" were peddled to five newspapers on October 24, 1962: the Long Island Star-Journal, the Augusta (GA) Chronicle, the Birmingham News, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the St. Louis Globe Democrat (where, amusingly enough, the reporter used to disseminate this propaganda was none other than Patrick J. Buchanan).

But the F.B.I. didn't truly go bonkers until the announcement, in October of 1964, that King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This unleashed a ferocious attempt to discredit King by whatever methods the F.B.I. could dream up. Two days after this announcement, a tape recording mashup was created, using edited highlights of recordings from the wiretaps on King's phones and electronic bugs the F.B.I. had installed in hotel rooms King had visited. This tape, full of "orgiastic" recordings showing "the depths of his sexual perversion and depravity" with prostitutes, was then used in a bizarre attempt to blackmail King into committing suicide. F.B.I. Assistant Director William C. Sullivan, the previously-mentioned head of COINTELPRO, dispatched operative Lish Whitson to Miami, where the package containing the tape would be mailed to King. Accompanying this package was the following letter (a full, unredacted version of this letter has never been publicly released, so please forgive the [...] interruptions):


In view of your low grade [...] I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII. [...]

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time that is any where [sic] near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God and act as you do. Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.

King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like [N.A.A.C.P. executive secretary Roy] Wilkins, a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done. Your "honorary" degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat you are done.

No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself. Lend your ear to the enclosure. [...] exposed on the record for all time. I repeat -- no person can argue successfully against facts. You are finished. You will find on the record for all time [...] to your hideous abnormalities. [...] to pretend to be ministers of the Gospel. Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness. It is all there on the record, [...]. King you are done.

The American public, the church organizations that have been helping -- Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are -- an evil, abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do [sic] (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

The redactions in the first and fourth paragraphs are assumed to be graphic descriptions of sex from the accompanying tapes. The "34 days" refers to how much time King had before he would be formally presented with the Nobel Peace Prize.

King, of course, did not take the F.B.I.'s advice and commit suicide. So F.B.I. Associate Director Cartha D. "Deke" DeLoach tried to get news organizations interested, following through on the blackmail threat. He offered the transcripts to Newsweek (where Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee turned him down), to the New York Times, to the Chicago Daily News, to the Los Angeles Times, to the Atlanta Constitution and other news organizations.

Even King's assassination didn't stop the F.B.I.'s campaign against him and his legacy. In 1969, the F.B.I. "furnished ammunition to conservatives to attack King's memory, and... tried to block efforts to honor the slain leader."

Thus were the American taxpayers' dollars put to use. A federal agency waged a campaign of disinformation, outright propaganda, blackmail, psychological warfare, and smear tactics against a civil rights leader. The Federal Bureau of Investigation even considered convening "a meeting of Negro leaders" to convince them "on a highly confidential basis" that King should be removed as a national civil rights leader (referred to as making such other leaders "see the light of day"). The stated goal of such a meeting: "This group should include such leadership as would be capable of removing King from the scene if they, of their own volition, decided that this was the thing to do after such a briefing."

This was all approved at the highest levels of the federal government -- the executive branch, in specific. It went on during the terms of two Republican and two Democratic presidencies. Such abuses of power were not solely targeted at King, but were commonplace against any person or group the F.B.I. decided was "subversive," or, in King's case, a threat to "the established order" in the United States.

Of course, such things couldn't happen today. Members of the government would never make unsupported allegations against an American of some sort of shadowy foreign allegiance in public -- and the media certainly wouldn't go along for the ride. Also, in these enlightened times, spying on American citizens could never be a force for anything but the purest goodwill, and would never ever be misused in any way shape or form.

What makes me reflect deeply, on this Martin Luther King Day, is that I bet if you made these sorts of statements to the average American-on-the-street in 1964, they would have wholeheartedly agreed. Because the public simply had no idea of what was going on, back then. Those of us who know our history, however, just don't have that excuse today.


[Note: Most of the information and quotations cited in this article can all be found in the very informative book The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall. The section on King can be found on pages 94 to 113, in the chapter "COINTELPRO -- Black Liberation Movement," and in the endnotes on pages 350 through 354 (South End Press Classics Series, Second Edition, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, Copyright 1990 and 2002). The anonymous F.B.I. letter to King now exists in several versions (from, assumably, different Freedom Of Information Act requests), with varying degrees of blacked-out redacted text. I have provided a composite of these to show the most-complete version of this letter possible.]


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