The FBI's Vendetta
Against Martin Luther King, Jr.
excerpted from the book
The Lawless State
The crimes of the U.S. Inteligence Agencies
by Morton Halperin, Jerry Berman, Robert Borosage,
Penguin Books, 1976
For the FBI, an organization seeking to register blacks in the
South was clearly suspicious. Until 1962, the bureau would monitor
King and SCLC under the "racial matters" category, which
required agents to collect "all pertinent information"
about the "proposed or actual activities of individuals and
organizations in the racial field." According to the Senate
Select Committee, the FBI information on King was "extensive."
The unfolding story of the civil rights protest movement and
the leadership role of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a most ignoble
chapter in the history of FBI spying and manipulation. As the
civil rights movement grew and expanded, the FBI pinpointed every
group and emergent leader for intensive investigation and most
for harassment and disruption, the FBl's domestic version of CIA
covert action abroad. The NAACP was the subject of a COMINFIL
investigation. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were listed by
the FBI as "Black-Hate" type organizations and selected
for covert disruption of their political activities. But the most
vicious FBI attack was reserved for King and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference. All of the arbitrary power and lawless
tactics that had accumulated in the bureau over the years were
marshaled to destroy King's reputation and the movement he led.
The FBI relied on its vague authority to investigate "subversives"
to spy on King and SCLC; its vague authority to conduct warrantless
wiretapping and microphonic surveillance to tap and bug him; its
secrecy to conduct covert operations against him. The campaign
began with his rise to leadership and grew more vicious as he
reached the height of his power; it continued even after his assassination
On August 28, 250,000 persons marched on Washing- 1, ton. The
march, sponsored by a cross-section of civil rights, labor, and
church organizations, was designed to support the enactment of
civil rights legislation. That day,
when Martin Luther King addressed the assemblage, he made
his most memorable speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live
out the true meaning of its creed: ``We hold these truths to be
self-evident that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day in the red hills of Georgia sons
of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able
to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi,
a state sweltering in the heat of injustice . . freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live
in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their
skin but by the content of their character.
The speech brought the crowd to its feet, applauding, echoing
the "Amens" that greet evangelical preaching, and shouting
"Freedom Now!" The FBI reacted differently. In memoranda
to the director, King's speech was characterized as "demagogic,"
and the presence of "200" Communists among the 250,000
marchers caused the Intelligence Division to state that it had
underestimated Communist efforts and influence on American Negroes
and the civil rights movement. King was singled out:
He stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders
put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes.
We must mark him now . . . as the most dangerous Negro of the
future in this Nation from the standpoint of Communism the Negro
and national security.
More ominously, the FBI suggested that "legal" efforts
to deal with King might not be enough. "It may be unrealistic,"
the memorandum went on, to limit ourselves as we have been doing
to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would
stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees....
It was up to the FBI to "mark" King and bring him
down on its own-to take the law into its own hands.
On October 1, 1963, Hoover received and then approved a combined
COMINFIL-COINTELPRO plan against the civil rights movement. The
approved plan called for intensifying "coverage of Communist
influence on the Negro." It recommended the "use of
all possible investigative techniques" and stated an "urgent
need for imaginative and aggressive tactics . . . to neutralize
or disrupt the Party's activities in the Negro field."
On October 10 and 21, Attorney General Kennedy gave the FBI
one of those "investigative techniques" by approving
the wiretaps on King.
On October 18, 1963, the FBI distributed a different kind
of memorandum on King, not only to the Justice Department, but
to officials at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency,
the State Department, the Defense Department, and Defense Department
intelligence agencies. It summarized the bureau's Communist party
charges against King and went much further. According to - Assistant
Attorney General Burke Marshall, it was a personal diatribe .
. . a personal attack without evidentiary support on the character,
the moral character and person of Dr. Martin Luther King, and
it was only peripherally related to anything substantive, like
whether or not there was Communist infiltration or influence on
the civil rights movement.... It was a personal attack on the
man and went far afield from the charges [of possible Communist
The attorney general was outraged and demanded that Hoover
seek the return of the report. By October 28, all copies were
returned. This was the first-and last-official action to deter
Hoover's vendetta against King.
In November, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Lyndon Johnson became president and the Justice Department was
in a state of confusion with the attorney general preoccupied
with his personal grief. King viewed the assassination as a tragedy,
and hoped it would spawn a new public concern for peace and reconciliation.
While the nation mourned, the FBI held a conference at the
beginning of December to plan its campaign to destroy King and
the civil rights movement. At that all-day meeting FBI officials
put forward proposals that make G. Gordon Liddy's Watergate plan
seem pale by comparison. Officials of the nation's number-one
law enforcement agency agreed to use "all available investigative
techniques" to develop information for use "to discredit"
King. Proposals discussed included using ministers, "disgruntled"
acquaintances, "aggressive" newsmen, "colored"
agents, Dr. King's housekeeper, and even Dr. King's wife or "placing
a good looking female plant in King's office" to develop
discrediting information and to take action that would lead to
From the nature of Burke Marshall's description of the October
18 report, it is obvious that the FBI was on to something it viewed
as unsavory about King's private life. The report made the charges,
but as Marshall said, there was no "evidentiary" support.
Now the FBI was out to get the proof. By January, the FBI had
initiated physical and photographic surveillance of King, deploying
its most experienced personnel to gather information, and had
placed the first of many illegal bugs in Dr. King's room at the
Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
According to Justice Department regulations at the time, microphonic
surveillance, although it necessitated a physical trespass and
was more intrusive than a phone tap, did not require the approval
of the attorney general. Even under its own regulations, however,
the FBI could only use this technique to gather "important
intelligence or evidence relating to matters connected with national
security." In this case the FBI planned to use "bugs"
to learn about "the [private] activities of Dr. King and
his associates" so that King could be "completely discredited."
It was clearly illegal.
The Willard Hotel "bug" yielded "19 reels"
of tape. The FBI, at least in its own opinion, had struck pay
dirt. The bug apparently picked up information about King's private
extramarital and perhaps "inter-racial" sexual activities.
This opened up the possibility of discrediting King as a Communist
who engaged in "moral improprieties."
For J. Edgar Hoover, "immoral" behavior was a crime
comparable to "subversive" activity-and of equal utility.
Hoover gathered such information on prominent persons to use for
political and blackmail purposes. Often he would share such "official
and confidential" information with presidents when his surveillance
uncovered "obscene matters" on the president's opponents
or aides. Sometimes he would let people know he had such information
on them, and that list includes Presidents John Kennedy and Richard
Nixon. In this case, however, Hoover did not plan to let King
know he had the information to gain a "political" power
advantage over him; he planned to use it to destroy him politically.
With the Willard Hotel tapes, the FBI campaign moved into high
With Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pressing action on civil rights
legislation and calling for a "War on Poverty," Martin
Luther King was a man the country and the world thought worthy
of honor. In December 1963, Time magazine named him "Man
of the Year." In 1964, while continuing his "nonviolent"
activities on behalf of civil rights in St. Augustine, Florida,
and other cities, King was awarded honorary degrees by universities;
he was invited by Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin, to speak
at a ceremony honoring the memory of President Kennedy; he had
an audience with Pope Paul VI in Rome; and, in October, he was
named by the Nobel Prize Committee to receive the Peace Prize
If for King 1964 was a year of honors and increasing public
recognition, for the FBI it was a year of concerted effort to
dishonor him. Learning that King had been named Man of the Year
by Time, Hoover wrote across a memorandum, "They had to dig
deep in the garbage to come up with this one."
In April, Hoover was quoted in the press as having testified that
"Communist influence does exist in the civil rights movement."
King reacted sharply:
It is very unfortunate that Mr. J. Edgar Hoover, in his claims
of alleged Communist infiltration in the civil rights movement,
has allowed himself to aid and abet the salacious claims of Southern
racists and the extreme right-wing elements.
We challenge all who raise the "red" issue, whether
they be newspaper columnists or the head of the FBI himself-to
come forward and provide real evidence which contradicts this
stand of the SCLC. We are confident that this cannot be done.
Going further, King repeated the charge of FBI inaction in
the South that had provoked the anti-King campaign:
It is difficult to accept the word of the FBI on Communist
infiltration in the civil rights movement, when they have been
so completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and
brutality inflicted upon the Negro in the deep south.
Hoover's first response was to say that it was incumbent on
the civil rights movement to prove that there was no Communist
influence. Then, in November, Hoover held a press briefing. Asked
to respond to King's charges, Hoover, off the record, called King
"one of the lowest characters in the country." On the
record, he called King the most "notorious liar" in
the country. Hoover's comments were widely publicized.
King's response this time was designed to dampen the controversy.
"I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like
this," King said, "without being under extreme pressure.
He has apparently faltered under the awesome burden, complexities,
and responsibilities of his office." King also sent Hoover
a telegram stating that
while he had criticized the bureau, the director's response
was "a mystery to me" and expressed a desire "to
discuss this question with you at length."
On November 27, Roy Wilkins was told by Cartha DeLoach that
if King wanted "war" the FBI was prepared to engage
in one, and the two of them discussed the FBI's "derogatory"
material. Wilkins told DeLoach that if the FBI made it public,
it could ruin the civil rights movement. Obviously Wilkins reported
this back to King, and a number of leaders, including King, agreed
to take steps to set up a meeting with the director. Hoover agreed
to meet with King on December 1.
According to all accounts, the meeting was exceedingly cordial.
Hoover expressed support for the civil rights movement and then
turned to what was on his mind criticism of the bureau. The meeting
consisted of a long monologue by Hoover on the FBI's efforts to
protect civil rights demonstrators, enforce the laws in the South,
and prevent terrorism. At the end of the meeting, King and Hoover
agreed to a public truce.
Only now do we know how close the FBI came to an all-out confrontation.
Unknown to King or SCLC until later, the FBI, at the height of
the public controversy, took its most distressing step. It mailed
the "tapes" to the SCLC office in Atlanta with a covering
letter urging King to commit suicide or face public revelation
of the information on the tapes on the eve of the award ceremonies
in Sweden. The letter said in part:
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
significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you.
You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared
to the nation.
It was thirty-four days before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.
Although public scandal was averted at the last moment, the
FBI's campaign continued. From 1965 until
King's death, the covert effort of the FBI to destroy King
r and to topple him from "his pedestal" continued. Aside
from the suicide note, there is no more graphic illustration of
the mind-set and nature of this political police operation than
the realization that while the campaign went on, the FBI had a
parallel plan to find a "suitable replacement" for King.
The plan was simple. William Sullivan, the head of the Intelligence
Division, had given it some thought and, in a January 1964 memorandum
to Hoover, proposed that the FBI conduct a search to find a "suitable"
successor to King. Hoover agreed. Sullivan, when asked about the
memorandum by the Senate Intelligence Committee, responded in
a way that speaks for itself: "I'm very proud of this memorandum,
one of the best memoranda I ever wrote. I think here I was showing
some concern for the country." While King was alive, the
concern was shown again and
The FBI had turned its arsenal of surveillance and disruption
techniques on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
It was concerned not with Soviet agents nor with criminal activity,
but with the political and personal activities of a man and a
movement committed to nonviolence and democracy. King was not
the first such target, nor the last. In the end we are all victims,
as our political life is distorted and constricted by the FBI,
a law enforcement agency now policing politics.
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