More than just spying on him, the government was actively attempting to sabotage King’s work, going so far as trying to persuade the civil rights leader to kill himself.
Published in Newsday.
Given his current status as a national icon, it is easy to forget that the government once tracked Martin Luther King Jr. like a criminal. In the 1960s, the FBI set wiretaps in the civil rights leader’s home, his office, his hotel rooms and in the phones of his closest associates. King’s file in the bureau’s headquarters contained thousands upon thousands of pages, augmented by dispatches from field agents stationed virtually everywhere he traveled.
In the opinion of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, King was a dangerous man, “an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.” Hoover was not alone in holding such views. Many powerful individuals of the time, who were invested in maintaining the status quo, saw King’s vision of racial and economic justice as a profound threat.
More than just spying on him, the government was actively attempting to sabotage King’s work, going so far as trying to persuade him to kill himself.
It is widely known among his biographers and former associates that King was often unfaithful to his wife during his travels. The FBI tried to manipulate these personal failings in service of its warped political agenda. On at least one occasion, the government anonymously sent the Southern Christian Leadership Conference audio recordings taken from its surveillance that revealed King’s disreputable private behavior.
As historian David Garrow writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Bearing the Cross, one package “also contained an anonymous and threatening letter,” later discovered to be the work of Assistant FBI Director William C. Sullivan.
“KING…You are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes,” the falsified letter read. “You have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile…. You are finished.”
The letter threatened to make the audio tapes public, then stated: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what this is. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
Martin Luther King Jr., of course, did not take his own life. But the intimidation worked in other ways. According to Garrow, the FBI’s threats caused King “severe emotional tension” and sent him into a deep depression.
We have no way of knowing what gains our country might have realized if King, along with the other civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activists targeted by the FBI’s counter-intelligence program, had been allowed full democratic freedoms. But we can learn from the crimes of COINTELPRO, as the nefarious program was known, and act to ensure that the government is never allowed to spy on people simply because of their political views.
After a Senate Select Committee released its findings on COINTELPRO in the 1970s, Attorney General Edward Levi introduced new guidelines for FBI behavior and Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Each step was designed to protect the constitutional rights of subjects under investigation. As political organizers of subsequent decades learned, these actions were hardly fail-safe in preventing illegal police infiltration. Nevertheless, the measures sent an important signal about the vigilance necessary to protect civil liberties in an open society.
Today, the very protections that were enacted after the discovery of crimes against King and other civil rights activists are under attack from the Bush administration.
On Nov. 23, 2003, reporters revealed an internal FBI memo showing that the agency has closely monitored antiwar organizations that demonstrated against the Bush administration’s belligerent foreign policy. The FBI, which had previously denied the charges, fessed up, but argued that it narrowly limits its surveillance to criminal elements. But the document shows the government singling out even entirely legal activities such as online fundraising and videotaping arrests at protests to record police abuses.
In May 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced new FBI guidelines that, with the help of the Patriot Act, allow the agency to have undercover agents infiltrate church groups and political organizations, even without any evidence of a criminal activity. Julian Bond, a prominent 1960s civil rights activist and current chair of the NAACP, recently quipped that we now live in the times of “J. Edgar Ashcroft.”
In the post-9/11 era, Americans are justifiably concerned with their security, and are willing to trust law enforcement officials with discretion in keeping our country safe. But when the Bush administration targets political dissenters, it violates that trust and puts our fundamental freedoms at risk.
Attorney General Ashcroft may have his defenders who don’t see the problem with the government targeting a few dangerous radicals. Those apologists need only to look to Martin Luther King Jr.
Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe. Photo credit: Rowland Scherman / Wikimedia Commons.