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, Christine Marwick

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 in 1968.

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 influence].

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 his disgrace.

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 gear.

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 in December.

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.

The Lawless State

National Security Agency watch

CIA watch

FBI watch

Index of Website

Home Page