Did the FBI spy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?

The record is categorical. It itself states as such. According to the Church Committee, a body convened to investigate intelligence gathering processes in wake of the Watergate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched “an intensive campaign” to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. as “an effective civil rights leader.” Regarding King, the goal of the FBI was clear, but the desired outcome of such an end serves as fodder for fierce debate. The word “neutralize” is vague enough that one can argue convincingly that officials wanted King either demoralized, shamed or killed.

In 1963, after the immortalized “I Have a Dream” speech, the FBI intensified its surveillance of King. A memo describes him as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover personally filed a request to wiretap King under then Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, who also wanted to be personally informed about any pertinent information dug up. The government’s campaign to pursue King “without embarrassment to the Bureau” morphed into a byzantine like effort with a messianic zeal to stymie King. Despite tens of thousands of FBI memos documenting his every move, the campaign concluded without turning up any seditious evidence over which to charge King.

Initially, the government began its investigation confident that evidence of King’s involvement with the Communist Party would be revealed. The hope was that if King’s sympathy for the communist movement could established, he and his movement might be discredited. If nothing else, it would at least muddy his calls for social justice, especially in the eyes of white America. Hoover in particular had been suspicious of communists’ role in the movement culture that defined the 1960s. The whole surveillance network launched after the FBI learned that one of King’s most trusted advisors was a New York City lawyer Stanley Levison, who had once served as a financial advisor for the Communist Party USA. Still, no evidence of King’s participation or membership and, for that matter, that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in any communist organization emerged. King denounced his pursuers, saying that “there are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida.”

The only potentially damaging material that the FBI did discover concerned King’s personal life, especially his extramarital affairs. For example, the FBI recorded a party that King attended in Washington at the Willard Hotel; later that evening, there are sounds of a sexual encounter coming from King’s room. Ironically, Hoover, who had his own checkered history with sexuality, found King’s love life particularly contemptible, calling him a “degenerate,” an “alley cat” and an “abnormal beast.” Something about King’s more salacious behavior might have reminded Hoover of himself. FBI agents repeatedly sent King transcripts of his illicit encounters, which were scribbled with their loathsome remarks, and threatened to release them to humiliate him before the public if King did not relent. If he wasn’t a communist, he was at least an adulterer; that too might sully his righteous image.

One of these letters bore a much talked about ominous sentence, which every account of King’s relationship with the FBI describes at length. The letter was part of a package, a kind of demented gift basket of King’s sex tapes, which was opened by Corretta Scott King, told King that there “is only one thing left for you to do.” Many interpret this remark as a ploy to drive King toward suicide; the FBI was waging a psychological war against King that would result with him taking his own life.

Whatever nightmarish twist one puts on these hypotheticals, we can be sure that a weaker man would have relented. Paradoxically, the tapes exhibit both the superhuman fortitude and flawed humanness of Martin Luther King. If nothing else, they remind us of one of the most ignominious episodes in modern American history.