By now, many people are aware of the FBI’s persistent and aggressive surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the current disclosures about NSA spying, it’s become fashionable to cite Dr. King as a target of the government. I’ve been wondering, though, how much those invoking his name in this historical moment actually understand the scope and nature of the government’s intrusion on his privacy.
It was actually after the March on Washington that the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King intensified and became more aggressive.
In an Aug 30 1963 memo (just two days after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom), William C. Sullivan, head of the FBI’s Division Five, wrote:
Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulder 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.
Over the next few years until he was assassinated in 1968, there were at least 25 illegal attempts by the FBI to discredit King. One of those attempts happened in 1964 and came to popular attention in 2012 when the blog “Letters of Note” published a letter sent to King by the FBI. The letter seemed to suggest that King should commit suicide. It reads:
In view of your low grade… I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII…
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great 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 anywhere 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. You could not believe in God… Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like Wilkins, a man of character and thank God we have others like him. 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.
No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself… I repeat — no person can argue successfully against facts… Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness… King you are done.
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 it (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, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
It’s fair to ask why the FBI would send such an incendiary letter to Dr. King. On November 18 1964, J. Edgar Hoover called Martin Luther King Jr “the most notorious liar in the country” during a press conference. Hoover was incensed at King’s criticism of the FBI’s handling of civil rights cases. When King heard what Hoover had called him, he issued a press release which intimated that the Director of the FBI was senile. Hoover hit the roof.
Two days later in a memo to FBI Deputy Associate Director Alan Belmont, Hoover wrote:
“I can’t understand why we are unable to get the true facts before the public. We can’t even get our accomplishments published. We are never taking the aggressive, but above lies remain unanswered.”
In response to Hoover’s anger, William C. Sullivan typed the infamous letter (trying to make it untraceable). He had one of his agents mail the letter along with an audiotape that included excerpts of King’s conversations with friends as well as his sexual liaisons. When the package arrived in Atlanta, it was Coretta Scott King who would open it. She read the letter and listened to part of the tape. She called her husband. Then King, Coretta, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Joseph Lowery would listen to the entire tape together.
Dr. King would later remark of the FBI’s persistent pursuit: “They are out to break me… They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”
It is important when we talk about the history of government surveillance that we always remain specific about its nature and impact. What the government did to Dr. King in terms of surveillance is not in any way analogous to what happened to Edward Snowden. We would do well to address each of these incidents separately and without conflating them. Both deserve our attention and our activism but they aren’t the same.