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The FBI Surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. 

The civil rights leader was the target of a covert FBI project to discredit him.

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  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, 1958.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

COINTELPRO. For those unfamiliar with this particular abbreviation, it was the name given to a far-reaching and top-secret FBI program—short for Counter Intelligence Program—that ran from 1956 until 1971. COINTELPRO might have continued for quite a bit longer had it not been for the actions of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, who used the “Fight of the Century” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier as cover to burgle an FBI field office in 1971, exposing the program to the public.

While it was still in operation, COINTELPRO illegally surveilled countless Americans whom the FBI deemed “subversive.” These included members of the Communist Party of the USA, various feminist organizations, anti-Vietnam War movements, civil rights groups, and environmentalists, as well as white supremacist and far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The actions of COINTELPRO went beyond information gathering. The agents who were part of the project were ordered by directives to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” their targets, which included assassinations, false allegations of crimes, witness intimidation, perjury, and withholding exculpatory evidence—all tactics that were used against members of the Black Panther Party, among others.

Among the targets of COINTELPRO was Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI began tapping King’s telephone as early as 1963. Ostensibly, this was due to allegations of communist affiliations within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which King was a founding member. Despite no evidence of such communist infiltration being obtained through the wiretaps, they continued, and the FBI actually ramped up its targeted harassment of King.

After the actions of COINTELPRO came to light, a select committee of the United States Senate was called in 1975 to investigate the abuses of power carried out during the program. Officially known as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, it was more commonly called the Church Committee, for Idaho Senator Frank Church, who was the committee chair.

According to the committee’s findings, “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.” This began under the auspices of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who gave written approval to tap King’s phone lines on a trial basis for a short time. It was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who permitted his men to look into every aspect of King’s life, and to extend the wiretap through the subsequent years.

Hoover’s distrust of King was notorious. In his personal files, Hoover made his disapprobation clear. When King met with the Pope, Hoover scrawled a handwritten note across the bottom of an article about the meeting, which read, “I am amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate.”

The surveillance did not end with King, either. It was initially approved due to King’s affiliations with Stanley Levison, a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and when King’s phones were tapped, Levison’s were, as well. However, Hoover regarded the entire civil rights movement with skepticism if not outright hostility, and declared the SCLC a “black nationalist hate group.”

“No opportunity should be missed to exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts of the leaderships,” Hoover ordered, regarding the SCLC, further adding that the goal was to see that “the targeted group is disrupted, ridiculed, or discredited.”

To this end, when no evidence of communist affiliation was found within the SCLC, the FBI turned to other methods to try to force King’s removal from a leadership position within the group. This included attempts to bring to light alleged extramarital affairs, with none other than President Lyndon B. Johnson referring to King as a “hypocritical preacher” due to what fellow civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy described in his autobiography as King’s “weakness for women.”

Whether or not these hypothetical affairs took place, the attempt was made to use them as leverage to pry King from his position at the head of the civil rights movement. Following King’s most famous speech during the March on Washington in 1963, an FBI memo described him as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in this country,” before going on to emphasize the importance of “neutralizing” him.

When King was selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the FBI sent an anonymous letter calling him “evil” and a “complete fraud,” repeating over and over again that, “you are done.” The letter was accompanied by a tape with selected bits from the wiretaps that the FBI had placed on King’s phones and in his hotel rooms, and ended with an ultimatum.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do,” it said. “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 significant. [sic] 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.”

Martin Luther King Jr. correctly deduced that the FBI had sent him the letter, an inference that would be proven correct when a draft copy was found in FBI files years later, and that it was intended to drive him to suicide. Though considerable speculation has been floated as to just what was captured on the FBI’s various wiretaps, for now, the recordings of those taps remain classified until 2027. What we do know is that the FBI, acting as part of COINTELPRO, was more than willing to fabricate allegations if they thought it would achieve the goal of “neutralizing” the target.

While the FBI may have been the most dedicated of the various agencies surveilling King, they were not alone. Both the CIA and the NSA also investigated King and monitored his communications, with the CIA intercepting his mail, as well as that of other civil rights leaders. The NSA itself declared its secret surveillance operations “disreputable if not outright illegal.”

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of his second-floor hotel room in Memphis. At the time, police officers were deployed at a fire station across the street to keep King under surveillance, and undercover officers were among the first to reach King after the shot that took his life. This, along with the FBI’s longstanding antagonism toward King and their underhanded and even deadly methods of “neutralizing” other civil rights leaders have led many to speculate that the FBI was involved in King’s death.