Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a very dangerous man. At least J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thought so. He did everything in his power aside from outright violence or imprisonment to make the "problem" go away.
The SCLC and "infiltration"
In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with some sixty other northern and southern activists and civil rights leaders. It was an organization to "to seek justice and reject all injustice" through things like activism, voter registration, demonstrations and similar means. A key platform for the SCLC was its insistence on using only nonviolent means. That "no matter how great the provocation.... Not one hair of one head of one white person shall be harmed" (www.stanford.edu).
From the beginning, the SCLC (and other, particularly but not exclusively black, civil rights organizations) was kept an eye on. It was felt they could be a target of communist infiltration. At the time, he admitted that there was an "absence of any indication" on the part of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and said there was no need for an investigationan official one, anyway. He did warn field agents that they "should remain alert for public source information concerning it in connection with the racial situation" (www.aclu.org).
It led to a COMINFIL ("Communist Infiltration") investigation (it had previously been under the "racial matters" category). This was largely based on a member of the Socialist Workers Party having offered to be a clerk for the organization. A personal file was opened on King by September 1958. He had been approached after a speaking engagement on the steps of a church by a member of CP. Of course, this was more than enough to proceed. Within two years, FBI had people infiltrating SCLC meetings and conferences.
In a memo from Assistant Director of General Investigative Division Alex Rosen to Hoover in May 1961, Rosen stated that King had not been investigated (this was in relation to his and four others' involvement in the "Freedom Rides"). Hoover shot back, "Why not?" Though the report was forwarded to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, no active investigation was started. But agents were still remaining alert. By July they'd determined that he had belonged to the Progressive Party while in college in 1948 and the executive director of the SCLC had once subscribed to a CP newsletter.
The following year, more time and effort were being expended to look into King. This was prompted by Hoover sending a letter to Kennedy informing him that King had a "close relationship" with a Stanley Levinson who was a member of the CPUSA and that "a high-ranking communist leader," Isadore Wofsy, had written a speech for him. There were problems with this, though. While it was clear that Levinson had maintained relationships with some party members (1949 to 1954), his actual membership was never substantiated. That led him to be declared a "secret" CP member by Hoover. Also, Levinson had written the speech, not Wofsy.
The investigation expands
That didn't matter, as concerns about communist infiltration in the civil rights movement (in general, also) worried Hoover and Kennedy (as civil rights was important to the administrationthat his brother was president should be unnecessary to note). Because of the fear of the Red Infiltration, Hoover had an analysis written on the subject of "exploitation and influence by the Communist Party on the American Negro population since 1919" (it was seventy pages). Its conclusion was that there seemed little to worry about since it had failed to make "any significant inroads into the Negro population and the civil rights movement." Hoover was not pleased.
He responded to William Sullivan (Assistant Director of the Domestic Intelligence Division, the writer) that it reminded him of a similar report by Sullivan that had informed him that "Castro and his cohorts were not Communists and not influenced by Communists."
Sullivan quickly changed his mind. Within a week he sent a memo that included statements branding King "the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security" (www.derechos.net) and "it may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proof or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in court or before Congressional committees." This took place a few days after the historic "I have a dream" speech.
Hoover was still displeased with the switch from one position to the other (and apparently not happy at there being an initial contradictory conclusion). Sullivan made a strong apology, admitting his and his department's failure to perceive the obvious threat this all posed. He asked to be allowed to go forward under that assumption (hardly an assumption from Hoover's point of view). It was allowed, though the director was still annoyed that Sullivan felt it had "not reached the point if control or domination." He replied that it had in the case of King.
A request for "technical surveillance" of King's residence and the offices of the SCLC was given to Attorney General Kennedy in October 1963. It began right after. It was now a matter not only for COMINFIL, but for COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) as well. It was decided that the FBI should use "all possible investigative techniques" and there was an "urgent need for imaginative and aggressive tactics...to neutralize or disrupt the Party's activities in the Negro field" (www.thirdworldtraveler.com). A new analysis was also writtenthis time acknowledging what was known to be the "truth." Hoover replied that "I am glad that you recognize at last that there exists such an influence."
In mid October, the FBI had a memo sent to the DOJ, the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Defense Department Intelligence agencies. It listed the ("Communist") charges against King and even went so far as to include personal attacks unrelated to the official reason for the investigation. The smears added to the charges incensed the Attorney General (and others) and the report was ordered returned (by 28 October, this was done).
None of this had affected parts of the plan already in place, such as the use of newspapers which had been leaked "information" about King, in order to use their editorial pages to spread what was essentially "anti-King propaganda" (www.derechos.net). Five had been chosen, including the St. Louis Globe Democrat were a young editor named Pat Buchanan was more than happy to disseminate the leaks. He later wrote in one of his books that "we were among Hoover's conduits to the American people" (qtd. at www.fair.org).
One of the key pieces of evidence for the belief of infiltration/influence was in the relationship with Levinson. The 1977 Department of Justice task force report on the security and assassination investigations found that the relationship was "clear" but that it wasn't clear that it "ought to have been considered either a possible national security threat or CPUSA directed."
It felt that the opening an investigation may have been justified, "but its protracted continuation was unwarranted." It based its conclusion that "the Bureau to date has no evidence whatsoever that Dr. King was ever a communist or affiliated with the CPUSA." In both statements from the Bureau's Intelligence Division and examination of the informant information and the (extensive) microphone and telephone surveillance, nothing was found. It further stated that "no documentation" was offered showing that the "SCLC under Dr. King was anything other than a legitimate organization devoted to the civil rights movement."
It was also noted that in early 1963, the FBI was well aware that Levinson had "disassociated himself from the CPUSA" because it "was not sufficiently involving itself in race relations and the civil rights movement." Of course, that aside, this is all from a task force working in 1976. At the time it occurred, things were much different and there was no question of just how dangerous King was.
Communist hysteria/paranoia was probably first and foremost in the "why?" department, but there were other factors involved. Reasons that are likely to have caused the intensification and cruel implementation of much that went on. Personal reasons.
In late 1962, King criticized the FBI's handling of the investigation into the movements treatment in Albany, Georgia (massive arrests were made). Hoover was not amused. Two years later, he testified before a Congressional committee that there were communist influences in the "Negro movement." As the DOJ report notes, King then accused him of "abetting racists and right wingers."
In what was probably a continuation of the exchange (fueled by the other events/ideology) Hoover called King "the most notorious liar in the country" in front of a group of reporters. Other comments were made that may have related. In December 1964, King met with Hoover to "clear up the misunderstanding." King reportedly apologized for what he said and "praised the work of the Bureau." This led to a (public) truce. That truce was soon broken when a letter was sent around discussing Hoover's criticisms of King and asking people to write or wire the president, to ask him to remove Hoover from his post at the FBI.
By mid December, Sullivan sent a memo stating that
In view of this situation, realism makes it mandatory that we take every prudent step that we can to emerge completely victoriously in this conflict. We should not take any ineffective or half-way measures, nor blind ourselves to the realities of the situation.
As he would say years later, there were "No holds barred."
Throughout 1964, the FBI used numerous harassment techniques (see below) to try to discredit him. Meanwhile, his power and influencepolitically, socially, and culturallycontinued to grow. Which, in turn, made his continued presence at the head of the civil rights movement all the more dangerous. His 1963 Time magazine "Man of the Year" selection elicited a memo from Hoover saying that "they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one" (www.aclu.org). His nomination to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his work made Hoover and Bureau even more determined to get him removed from leadership role at the head of the movement and to personally destroy him.
Attorney General Kennedy had signed the order authorizing the electronic surveillance of King and the SCLC on 10 October 1963. One of his concerns had been the possibility of the operation being discovered, especially since it seemed to be based more on political purposes than any national security issue (something that was supposed to be necessary for the use of microphone surveillance). He was assured of the improbability of that and agreed to it on a "trial basis, and to continue if productive results were forthcoming" (www.derechos.net).
One of the main, if not "real" purpose of all the surveillance (which included a number of break-ins in order to look for information on King) was to publicly and personally discredit and destroy him so he would be forced out of his leadership role. In fact, the idea that this was all still thought of as some sort of communist infiltration fear seems hard to accept by then, though it remained the official reason. The FBI, through Hoover was determined to bring down the civil rights leader anyway they could.
This would involve other illegal activity in addition to what was already noted (and the serious ethical violations involved). The DOJ report noted that the FBI had no record of the entries, though field office memos show it had been advised of the action each time. Additionally, one of the longtime informants was kept working even after it had been determined that the informant was embezzling money from the SCLC.
The "suicide" letter
The numerous tapes of hundreds of hours of conversation were the source for information on King's extramarital affairs and became one of the main vehicles for discrediting him. When the nomination for the Peace Prize was announced, Sullivan had a composite tape made from the previous two years. It was intended to "prove" his many sexual liaisons with women who were not his wife and show "the depths of his sexual perversion and depravity" (www.derechos.net). It was then packaged and accompanied with an anonymous letter (an approximation, including typos but not strikes or letters typed over others as correction):
[deletion, full paragraph]
King, look into your heart. You are a complete fraud and a 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 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. [deletion]
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. [deletion] 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.
[deletion, full paragraph]
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 (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant. You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy frauddulent self is bared to the nation.
The "exact number" was chosen as it was the amount of time left before the prize was to be awarded. This is generally what is referred to as the letter asking him to commit suicide. While that seems fairly clear, the wording is kept just ambiguous enough to make it implicit, rather than explicit.
King did nothing of the sort, which further angered and frustrated the FBI (and Hoover). Plans were made to make the tapes available to some of the biggest papers and columnists in the country. Many refused to go with the story (for whatever reasons) and the failure led to a serious cut back on the program.
Following the assassination
The counterintelligence operations continued even after King's assassination on 4 April 1968. According to the DOJ report, it went on for almost six more years. The report further notes that there is still no evidence that the "alleged Communist" who was a personal adviser was able to "'sell' Dr. King any course of conduct or of advocacy which can be identified as communist or 'Party Line.'" It also noted that at no time did King "advocate the overthrow of the government of the United States by violence or subversion." The conclusion was clear: "Dr. King was no threat to domestic security."
The report also stated that the investigation should have been ended in 1963 after discovering that the adviser had disassociated himself from the CP. Since the FBI's mandate for domestic intelligence only makes them in charge of "investigative work in matters relating to espionage, sabotage, subversive activities, and related matters" (obviously interpreted as broadly as credibility could be stretched), there was no justification for the continued existence of the investigation.
It determined that (even at the time) the investigation was probably "felonious" and that "the Attorney General and the Division charged with responsibility for internal security matters failed badly in what should have been firm supervision of the FBI's internal security activities."
In addition to what has been already noted, the FBI used numerous other ways to harass and try to discredit King. (quotes here taken from www.aclu.org)
It spoke to the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ, attempting to turn them against him. Pressure from the Bureau was enough to get him to promise that "steps have been taken...to make certain from this time on that Martin Luther King will never get 'one dollar' of financial support from the National Council."
When King was planning to meet with the Pope, the FBI contacted a New York Cardinal to explain the embarrassment that would ensue if he met with the Pope and then was discredited. This was a failure, as the meeting took place. An event which elicited from Hoover a memo saying "I amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a [deletion]."
When he won the Nobel Peace Prize and planned to meet with European leaders, the Bureau had its representatives there "brief the proper authorities about Dr. King." They tried to get a major magazine to cancel running an article by King. Due to contractual reasons, it ran but when King wanted to make some changes to "soften" some of the criticism he had for other civil rights organizations, the magazine refused to allow him.
The FBI also successfully kept King from getting a donation for the SCLC from Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa. Since King had not wanted any publicity when he received it, the Bureau made sure the press was notified. A memo proudly stated that "our counterintelligence aim to thwart King from receiving money from the Teamsters has been successful to date." Other attempts were made to disable the ability to raise funds, including having certain "friendly" press sources criticize King's antiwar sentiment concerning Vietnam. He was characterized as a "traitor to his country and to his race."
Even his wife, Coretta Scott King was investigated in order to find something in her travels or activities that could be used to discredit him.
In addition to being one of the more shameful actions during the civil rights movement, other lessons can be drawn from what happened. One of the most important is the necessity for well-enforced checks and balances concerning the power wielded by an internal police force, such as the FBI. Without ways to counter abuse, not only codified, but with well-enforced and appropriate consequences, there is little to keep this sort of thing from happening again. This seems particularly poignant in 2002 with current Attorney General John Ashcroft working to get the FBI's investigative powers increased and broadened (with more than tacit approval by a frightening large portion of the US public).
(Sources: foia.fbi.gov/mlkjrrep/mlkjrrep1.pdf all quotes from here unless noted, www.derechos.net/paulwolf/cointelpro/copap5a.htm, www.aclu.org/congress/mlkreport.pdf, www.thirdworldtraveler.com/NSA/Vendetta_MLK_LS.html, www.stanford.edu/group/King/king_bio_enc/enc_SCLC.htm, www.fair.org/current/buchanan-bigot.html)