King's FBI File
Beginning in 1962, the FBI conducted an extensive program of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King Jr. Under the guidance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover - and with the permission of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy -- the FBI tapped King's home and office phones and those of his associates. FBI agents also bugged King's hotel rooms, recording the civil rights leader's extramarital activities. The FBI used selected parts of its round-the-clock surveillance to try to discourage and discredit King. On orders from Hoover, information characterizing King as a communist dupe and a moral degenerate was circulated throughout the government, and to journalists, church leaders and others.
J. Edgar Hoover created the modern FBI and ran it for 48 years, until his death in 1972. He collected dirt on public officials and private citizens, building a vast set of files on the famous and the obscure. Hoover was a relentless foe of people he considered subversives, especially those he suspected of siding with communism. Journalist and author Nick Kotz writes, "It was Standard Procedure in FBI reports to identify people by their affiliations - however distant or vague - with suspected leftist groups." Hoover kept tabs on his political enemies and those who dared criticize the Bureau.
Many historians have described Hoover as a racist. He viewed the civil rights movement - and its leaders -- as a subversive threat to the American way of life. He particularly hated King. Hoover was willing to use the FBI's enormous power to try to destroy people, like King, whom he considered the nation's enemies. In 1976, a congressional investigation described the FBI's campaign against King as "one of the most abusive of all FBI programs."
In the 1970s, in response to government investigations and Freedom of Information Act requests by scholars and journalists, the FBI released more than 70,000 pages of King's secret FBI files. It was just a fraction of the total paperwork the FBI kept on King. Most of the recordings and reports on King's private affairs were sealed by a federal judge until 2027. What was released was often incomplete. Bureau censors blacked out words, sentences and whole pages of material deemed too personal or too secret.
Still, historians and journalists have used the publically-released files to draw an extraordinarily detailed picture of King. The selected FBI documents posted here were produced in the last year of King's life.
The King-Levison Wiretaps
In 1962, FBI informants told the Bureau that one of Martin Luther King, Jr's closest advisers - New York lawyer Stanley Levison - was a communist. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered an investigation. On June 22, 1963, King met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House to discuss civil rights. At one point, Kennedy led King from the Oval Office into the Rose Garden. The president warned King that two of his top associates - Levison and SCLC employee Jack O'Dell, were communists. Kennedy urged King to get rid of them (King later quipped that perhaps the president spoke to him in the garden because he thought the Oval Office might be bugged).
Kennedy also warned that King, himself, was under close surveillance. Kennedy said any scandal at SCLC could damage the administration's work toward a civil rights bill. Leaks to the press about O'Dell's communist background compelled King to oust him. But King refused to drop Stanley Levison. As Nick Kotz, author of Judgment Days - Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, says, Levison was "too valuable an advisor and friend to give up." Historian David Garrow says Levison was King's closest white friend.
Stanley Levison was a successful New York lawyer and businessman. He got involved in the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s and was introduced to King through civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Levison was also a former communist. According to Garrow, "Levison had served as one of the top two financiers for the Communist Party USA in the years before he met King." It is possible that Levison - like many other communist sympathizers of the time - had become disenchanted with the party. Historical evidence suggests Levison was not active in the party when he started working with King.
The FBI's ongoing surveillance of Levison took on new energy when an informant tipped off the Bureau that Levison was an adviser to King. In late 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved an FBI request to tap Levison's phone and bug his office. Kennedy later agreed to let the Bureau eavesdrop on King as well.
Transcripts and tape from the electronic surveillance of King are sealed by court order until 2027. But many of the Levison transcripts were released in the 1970s. They offer a unique perspective on King and his trusted adviser. The FBI's campaign against King is widely regarded as an odious chapter in American history. But the FBI's documents have been a gift to King historians, who have been able to mine these intimate conversations to gain a more complete and complicated picture of the nation's most powerful civil rights leader.
The documents selected here focus on two of the most challenging episodes in the last year of King's life: his April 4, 1967 speech in New York against the Vietnam War; and a demonstration in Memphis on March 28, 1968 to support striking city sanitation workers. The Memphis march deteriorated when some African American youths began breaking windows and others started burning and looting stores. King's aides hustled him from the scene. Meanwhile, police fired tear gas and began clubbing marchers. The violence escalated. Four black people were shot, one fatally. Hundreds more were arrested.
Some of these FBI wiretap reports paraphrase conversations; others provide more detailed transcriptions.
Other FBI documents
The FBI opened its major investigation into Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in October 1962. King's civil rights activities the year before had sparked the Bureau's curiosity. On a memo reporting that King had not been investigated, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover penned, "Why not?" Elsewhere he added, "Let me have more details." Hoover would get them.
The 1963-64 memos and reports selected here represent just a fraction of the paperwork generated in the FBI's campaign to "neutralize" King as a civil rights leader. Congressional investigations in the 1970s and historian David Garrow's subsequent investigation into the FBI's case on King eventually brought tens of thousands of these FBI documents to public light. In his book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr. Garrow describes the FBI's activities as having three primary phases:
- 1962-63: Gather and distribute intelligence to prove communist influence on King and the civil rights movement
- 1963-65: Gather and distribute material that could be used to discredit or "expose" King
- 1965-68: Gather and distribute intelligence on King's opposition to the Vietnam War and the communist roots of that opposition.
As King's influence and celebrity grew, so did Hoover's personal hatred of the man. When FBI investigators suggested that the Communist Party's influence on King and the civil rights movement was negligible, Hoover's scornful reaction was so unsettling that career Bureau men did an obsequious about-face. Some of their memos can be read here.
Hoover's campaign to discredit King continued even after the civil rights leader died. A congressional investigation into domestic spying by the government produced a scathing report on Hoover and the FBI's behavior. The report found that no responsible government official - no president, no attorney general - ever ordered the FBI to stop harassing King. It appeared to be safer, the report found, to let the FBI keep going than to risk being accused of muzzling the Bureau for political reasons.
Back to King's Last March.