In early 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved a request by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps in the home and office of a New York-based attorney, Stanley David Levison. According to FBI informants, Levison had been an influential member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) until 1956. They believed he now wielded his influence in a different way – as a senior adviser. foremost civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
As King’s fame and stature grew over the following years, the FBI stepped up its surveillance of him as part of its national counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, arguing it was a matter of national security. While the Bureau’s scrutiny of King revealed no Communist leanings, it did reveal evidence of King’s extramarital affairs. Hoover and his agents then attempted to exploit this information not only to discredit and weaken King as the leader of the civil rights movement, but to blackmail him into committing suicide.
Hoover’s Campaign Against Communism and the Civil Rights Movement
Hoover built his nearly five-decade career with the FBI on combating the perceived threat of communism. His determined efforts to root out suspected sympathizers during the first Red Alert helped cement his meteoric rise to the top of the FBI in 1924, at just 29 years old. On the cusp of the Cold War, he devoted his efforts to investigating Communists and others whom he saw as potential enemies of the United States, seeing red, among others, in labor unions and the creative class of ‘Hollywood. By the time of his death in 1972, Hoover had amassed confidential files on an impressive number of public figures, from Charlie Chaplin to Muhammad Ali to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Because the CPUSA had supported increased civil rights for black Americans as early as the 1930s, Hoover was not alone in viewing the emerging civil rights movement of the 1950s as susceptible to Communist influence. King first became known to the FBI in 1955, when the young minister played a leading role in the Montgomery bus boycott.
For his part, King actively preached against Communism from the early 1950s, arguing that it was fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Despite this, he was forced to defend himself against claims that he was a communist throughout his career.
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Stanley Levison and the origins of FBI surveillance of King
King and Levison met in 1956 through Bayard Rustin, another civil rights leader. Levinson eventually became one of King’s closest advisers, helping the movement raise funds, write ghost speeches and more, including editing and securing a publishing deal for King’s first book. , Walk to freedom.
As King David Garrow’s biographer wrote in his 1981 book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., Valuable informants provided the FBI with credible reports of Levison’s role as CPUSA’s main financier from the mid-1940s to 1956. Although Levison was said to have disappeared from party affairs by the time he met King, Hoover remained convinced that he was still involved. His arguments were enough to convince Robert Kennedy to allow wiretapping at Levison’s home and office a few weeks after learning of his relationship with King.
Members of the Kennedy administration, including President John F. Kennedy, then warned King personally to distance himself from Levison and another suspected Communist, Jack O’Dell, who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of King. After King sacked O’Dell in 1963, but continued to work with Levison through an intermediary, Clarence Jones, Robert Kennedy also authorized wiretapping of Jones’ home and offices.
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The king’s rise to greater fame and greater scrutiny in 1963
In August 1963, King gave his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. Its growing importance has drawn close scrutiny from the FBI. “We have to score [King] now … as the most dangerous negro in the future of this nation from a communist, negro and national security perspective, ”wrote William Sullivan, head of the bureau’s domestic intelligence division, on 30 May. August.
In October 1963, Robert Kennedy authorized the installation of wiretaps at King’s Atlanta home and SCLC offices, on the understanding that the FBI was continuing to investigate his suspected Communist links. Within months, however, the office expanded its surveillance of King, placing bugs and wiretaps in hotel rooms it visited. The expansion reflected the FBI’s new goal: to gather evidence of King’s extramarital activity in order to sully his reputation and weaken him as a leader of the civil rights movement.
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Tensions between Hoover and King, and the “suicide note”
Even as King achieved historic victories in 1964, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Nobel Peace Prize, his public criticism of the FBI and his failure to act against civil rights violations in the South led him to to a direct public conflict with Hoover.
At a press conference in November 1964, Hoover called King “the country’s most notorious liar,” prompting King to defend himself in the press and request a meeting at the director’s office to defuse tensions. After the two met for more than an hour in Hoover’s office in early December, King told reporters that he and Hoover had a “fairly friendly chat.” His assistant Andrew Young, who was present at the meeting, later recalled that there was “not even an attitude of hostility”.
Meanwhile, Hoover’s FBI took one of their most shocking actions towards King. Days after Hoover’s press conference, Sullivan wrote an anonymous letter to the civil rights leader, suggesting intimate knowledge of his alleged sexual activities. Through agents, he sent the letter to King in Atlanta, along with a tape recording believed to document some of these extramarital affairs.
As historian Beverly Gage wrote, King and his close associates believed the letter suggested he should take his own life. He set a 34-day deadline “before your fraudulent and abnormal self is revealed to the nation” and concluded by saying “There is only one thing left for you to do.” They also (correctly) assumed that the source of the letter and the tape was the FBI. Senate investigators revealed in 1975 that a draft of the letter was found in Sullivan’s files, although he denied knowledge of it and suggested it was Hoover’s work.
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Revelations of the campaign against the king
Although the FBI stopped listening to King’s home in April 1965 and his office the following year, it continued to investigate him until his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The extent of the attempt to FBI campaign to use King’s personal life against him, including the infamous “suicide note,” as it became known, first came to light in 1976, four years after Hoover’s death, with the damning report of the Special Senate Committee to Study Government Operations in Intelligence Activities, commonly referred to as the Church Committee.
“The FBI said at no time did it have any evidence that Dr King himself was a Communist or linked to the Communist Party,” the Church Committee reported in a section devoted to the investigation. on King. “Rather than attempting to discredit the so-called Communists that they believed were attempting to influence Dr. King, the Office adopted the curious tactic of trying to discredit the supposed target of Communist Party interests – Dr. King himself. even.
In 1977, King’s former aide Bernard Lee sued the FBI for damages related to the office’s surveillance of King. A federal judge in the case rejected Lee’s request to destroy the surveillance tapes and transcripts, instead ordering the FBI to turn them over to the National Archives, where they will remain sealed until 2027.