The newly declassified documents released by the National Security Agency offer more proof of what's long been known and that's that the federal government routinely spied on Dr. Martin Luther King. However, the NSA taps are only the tip of the government spy iceberg against King. What's still only sketchily known or remembered is that the government waged a long, brutal and systematic covert campaign against King that didn't stop at illegal surveillance and wiretaps. The aim was two-fold, to discredit King not as a critic of the Vietnam War but as the nation's paramount civil rights leader and to discredit the entire civil rights movement in the process. The ringmaster for the dirty war on King, then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and other top FBI officials routinely spit out these choice expletives about King "Dangerous," "evil," and a "colossal fraud." They didn't stop at name calling. They talked ominously of "neutralizing" him as an effective leader. And even more ominously they sent him a poison pen letter saying 'King you are done' and suggesting he kill himself.
Hoover assigned Assistant FBI director William Sullivan the dirty job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the "most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation." In his book My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King's activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation, and smear sexual leaks to the media, and even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI's war against him, and made no apology for it. The FBI patterned its spy and harassment campaign against King on the methods used by its counterintelligence division and internal security sections during the 1940s and '50s. The arsenal of dirty tactics they used included unauthorized wiretaps, agent provocateurs, poison-pen letters, "black-bag jobs" (breaking and entering to obtain intelligence) and the compiling of secret dossiers.
In the 1960s, the FBI recruited thousands of "ghetto informants," for their relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation against African-American groups. The bureau even organized its targets into Orwellian categories agents gave such labels as "Rabble Rouser Index," "Agitator Index" and "Security Index."
We know only the bare outline of what the FBI actually did to King in his final days. There are still a lot of dots that need to be connected in the FBI's murky onslaught against King. But we do know this. The FBI officials who directed the illegal spy campaign against King and the FBI agent who played a major role in running the program in Atlanta against him were also involved in every phase of the investigation into King's assassination. The likelihood is, of course, that James Earl Ray acted alone and killed King. Yet the taint of the severely compromised cast of government officials that controlled the investigation nearly three decades after his murder still raises questions about the scope, or lack thereof, of the investigation.
Unfortunately, the other truth is that the House Select Committee on Assassination that investigated King's murder ordered the files sealed for fifty years. They are still sealed. So we don't really know what the FBI did or didn't do in the run-up to King's murder. The files just might answer many questions about the secret war the FBI waged against King from the late 1950s to his murder.
Then there was Army Intelligence's war on King. It is not as well-known as the FBI's but it was still just as prolonged and lethal. It started in 1947 with surveillance of King who was then a student at Morehouse College at a meeting of the Intercollegiate Council he attended, the group was suspected of being Communist-influenced. The reports on King's activities continued through the 1950s. As King's stature as America's best known civil rights leader rose in the 1960s, Army Intelligence kicked its spy campaign against him into high gear. It went beyond mere taps and surveillance. According to classified documents uncovered a few years ago for seven years it flew at least 26 super secret U2 spy flights over civil rights actions in Birmingham, Ala., and other cities.
The assault on King was more than the FBI and Army Intelligence's acting out of their paranoid obsessions against King. It was a war against the civil rights movement. The federal government shamefully and disgracefully with the full knowledge and assent of presidents and attorney generals decided that the cheap and dirty way to win that war was by discrediting the most respected and admired symbol of that movement. The NSA taps were only a tiny part of that war.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. His latest ebook '47 Percent Negro': A Chronicle of the Wackiest Racial Assaults on President Obama is now available (Amazon).