CHURCH COMMMITTEE REPORT: From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader. In the words of the man in charge of the FBI’s “war” against Dr. King:
No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.
The FBI collected information about Dr. King’s plans and activities through an extensive surveillance program, employing nearly every intelligence-gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal. Wiretaps, which were initially approved by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, were maintained on Dr. King’s home telephone from October 1963 until mid-1965; the SCLC headquarter’s telephones were covered by wiretaps for an even longer period. Phones in the homes and offices of some of Dr. King’s close advisers were also wiretapped. The FBI has acknowledged 16 occasions on which microphones were hidden in Dr. King’s hotel and motel rooms in an “attempt” to obtain information about the “private activities of King and his advisers” for use to “completely discredit” them.
Congressional leaders were warned “off the record” about alleged dangers posed by Reverend King. The FBI responded to Dr. King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by attempting to undermine his reception by foreign heads of state and American ambassadors in the countries that be planned to visit. When Dr. King returned to the United States, steps were taken to reduce support for a huge banquet and a special “day” that were being planned in his honor.
The FBI’s program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed attempts to discredit him with churches, universities, and the press. Steps were taken to attempt to convince the National Council of Churches, the Baptist World Alliance, and leading Protestant ministers to halt financial support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and to persuade them that “Negro leaders should completely isolate King and remove him from the role he is now occupying in civil rights activities.” When the FBI learned that Dr. King intended to visit the Pope, an agent was dispatched to persuade Francis Cardinal Spellman to warn the Pope about “the likely embarrassment that may result to the Pope should he grant King an audience.” The FBI sought to influence universities to withhold honorary degrees from Dr. King. Attempts were made to prevent the publication of articles favorable to Dr. King and to find “friendly” news sources that would print unfavorable articles. The FBI offered to play for reporters tape recordings allegedly made from microphone surveillance of Dr. King’s hotel rooms.
The FBI mailed Dr. King a tape recording made from its microphone coverage. According to the Chief of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, the tape was intended to precipitate a separation between Dr. King and his wife in the belief that the separation would reduce Dr. King’s stature. The tape recording was accompanied by a note which Dr. King and his advisers interpreted as a threat to release the tape recording unless Dr. King committed suicide. The FBI also made preparations to promote someone “to assume the role of leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited.”
The campaign against Dr. King included attempts to destroy the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by cutting off its sources of funds. The FBI considered, and on some occasions executed, plans to cut off the support of some of the SCLC’s major contributors, including religious organizations, a labor union, and donors of grants such as the Ford Foundation. One FBI field office recommended that the FBI send letters to the SCLC’s donors over Dr. King’s forged signature warning them that the SCLC was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS files on Dr. King and the SCLC were carefully scrutinized for financial irregularities. For over a year, the FBI unsuccessfully attempted to establish that Dr. King had a secret foreign bank account in which he was sequestering funds.
The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness. As early as 1962, Director Hoover penned on an FBI memorandum, “King is no good.” At the August 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King told the country of his dream that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”‘ The FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division described this “demagogic speech” as yet more evidence that Dr. King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” Shortly afterward, Time magazine chose Dr. King as the “Man of the Year,” an honor which elicited Director Hoover’s comment that “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one.” 12 Hoover wrote “astounding” across the memorandum informing him that Dr. King had been granted an audience with the Pope despite the FBI’s efforts to prevent such a meeting. The depth of Director Hoover’s bitterness toward Dr. King, a bitterness which he had effectively communicated to his subordinates in the FBI, was apparent from the FBI’s attempts to sully Dr. King’s reputation long after his death. Plans were made to “brief” congressional leaders in 1969 to prevent the passage of a “Martin Luther King Day.” In 1970, Director Hoover told reporters that Dr. King was the “last one in the world who should ever have received” the Nobel Peace Prize. MORE