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Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the FBI

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, will always be remembered as the political rally that featured the historic "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the event that is widely credited as helping pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the National Voting Rights Act (1965).

Less well known, according to Richard Gid Powers ("Martin Luther King Jr.: FBI's Campaign to Discredit the Civil Rights Leader," American History Magazine, August 2003) is the fact that the march touched off an explosion at the FBI that resulted in the bureau's campaign to destroy Dr. King as a public figure. The war waged by the bureau would continue "almost maniacally" as long as Dr. King lived and "even after King was dead."

Ed Brayton ("FBI and MLK Jr: Lessons for Today,", April 4 2008) said one memo by the FBI called for a meeting of department heads to "explore how best to carry on our investigation [of King] to produce the desired results without embarrassment to the bureau." Even Robert Kennedy, Attorney General at the time, approved a request from Hoover to allow the FBI to break into Dr. King's home and place recording devices. With no concern for the legality of the operation; Kennedy's only request was for the "delicacy of this particular matter" and he wanted to make sure that the agents didn't get caught planting the bugs.

Following the march, William C. Sullivan, head of the bureau’s powerful Division Five, its Domestic Intelligence Division, set down his reflections on the March in this August 30 memo:

"Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday 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, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security….[I]t may be unrealistic 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 that the Communist party, USA, does wield substantial influence over Negroes which one day could become decisive." 
(Gid Powers,"Martin Luther King Jr.: FBI's Campaign to Discredit the Civil Rights Leader," American History Magazine, August 2003)

Before the march, the FBI had been watching Dr. King with mounted hostility, but after the march, the bureau's surveillance of King turned from relatively passive to violently aggressive. The bureau’s hostility toward King had been heightened by King’s criticism of the FBI’s performance in the field of civil rights. According to King biographer David J. Garrow, the FBI, with circumstantial evidence, attempted to link Dr. King with Stanley Levison, important Communist Party financier, in an attempt by the American Communist Party to take over the civil rights movement.

This led to the bureau's wiretapping of Dr. King's office. And, although Sullivan, himself, came to the conclusion that any Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement was negligible and need be of no further concern to the bureau or to the country, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover fired the report back at Sullivan with the handwritten comment that...

"this memo reminds me vividly of those I received when Castro took over Cuba. You contended then that Castro and his cohorts were not communists and not influenced by communists. Time alone proved you wrong. I for one can’t ignore the memos re [deletion, presumably Levison and O'Dell] as having only an infinitesimal effect on the efforts to exploit the American Negro by the Communists." 
(Martin Luther King Jr. FBI Files,, August 30 1963)

This Hoover memo then led to a retraction by Sullivan of everything he had said on August 23:

"The Director is correct. We were completely wrong about believing the evidence was not sufficient to determine some years ago that Fidel Castro was not a communist or under communist influence. On investigating and writing about communism and the American Negro, we had better remember this and profit by the lesson it should teach us."  
(Martin Luther King Jr. FBI Files,, August 30 1963)

Then Sullivan issued his forceful denunciation of King as

"the most dangerous Negro of the future" and concluded that "we greatly regret that the memorandum did not measure up to what the director has a right to expect from our analysis."  
(Martin Luther King Jr. FBI Files,, August 30 1963)

Sullivan, apparently afraid of losing his position, quickly became the most aggressive advocate of the FBI's new campaign to discredit King within the government, to disrupt and neutralize his movement and to destroy him professionally and personally.

Richard Gid Powers reported on December 23, FBI executives, including Sullivan, F.S. Baumgardner, three other headquarters officials and two agents from Atlanta, met to draw up plans against King. During the nine-hour session at FBI headquarters, they considered 21 proposals, including one that focused on ways of turning King’s wife against him. The FBI concluded they would gather information about King to use...

"at an opportune time in a counterintelligence move to discredit him….We will, at the proper time when it can be done without embarrassment to the Bureau, expose King as an opportunist who is not a sincere person but is exploiting the racial situation for personal gain."
(American History Magazine, August 2003)

Two weeks later, Sullivan wrote the following: 

"It should be clear to all of us that Martin Luther King must, at some propitious point in the future, be revealed to the people of this country and to his Negro followers as being what he actually is–a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel. When the true facts concerning his activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence. When this is done, and it can be and will be done, obviously much confusion will reign, particularly among the Negro people….The Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction. This is what could happen, but need not happen if the right kind of national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed so as to overshadow Dr. King and be in the position to assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited."
(American History Magazine, August 2003)

Richard Gid Powers wrote over the next four years, 25 separate illegal attempts by the FBI to discredit King would occur, ranging from efforts to keep universities from awarding him honorary degrees, interfering with the publication of his writings, to attempting to disrupt his relationships with religious, Congressional, and media leaders.

As pressure mounted, at a press conference with the Washington Women’s Press Corps on November 18, Hoover called King "the most notorious liar in the country," rebuffing efforts by FBI publicity chief Cartha "Deke" DeLoach to have the phrase taken off the record. King responded with a press release that in effect called Hoover senile.

Still, as Dr. King was selected to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI attacked while Hoover and Sullivan conspired. Accompanied by a taped reel of salacious episodes recorded by microphones hidden in King’s hotel, Sullivan wrote and sent King a crudely typed letter as follows:

"King, look into your heart. You know, you are a complete fraud and a greater 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 anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat that you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that….King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader….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….The American public, the church organizations that have been helping–Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are–an evil 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 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."
(Richard Gid Powers,"Martin Luther King Jr.: FBI's Campaign to Discredit the Civil Rights Leader," American History Magazine, August 2003)
Reports stated ( and, "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."

The package was opened my Coretta. She, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery listened to it all, and they immediately realized that the source had to be the FBI. Although Sullivan denied authoring the anonymous letter that accompanied the tape, a copy was found in his file cabinet at FBI headquarters after he was fired for leaking information to the White House about Hoover.

The FBI was trying to destroy the civil rights leader , cruelly using "the content of his character" against him. And even after Dr. King’s death, the bureau continued its assault on his name and memory.

Of course, King did not commit suicide and made attempts to make the tapes available to the press; however, many refused to report the story, which cut support for the movement. After all, the times were full of turmoil and distrust -- both warranted and unwarranted.

Today, this post seems to be the stuff of fiction. To consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Public Enemy Number One is beyond belief. To think of the March on Washington as the beginning of an end to a dream is repulsive. Dr. King set in action an unstoppable force fueled with power, love, and passive resistance. Hoover's campaign to rid America of King is one of the most shameful chapters of American history.

All must realize that unbridled government excess remains dangerous and its applications should be monitored by all. We cannot afford to relax our crucial Attorney General guidelines, or we all run the risk of terrible intrusion and abuse. The dream of truth continues and we must all do our parts to sustain its continued advancement.

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