Another Perspective

Federal Snoops: Nothing New

Anyone remember the anonymous letter sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. back in 1964?

By 1.25.06

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The head of the FBI's Domestic Intelligence Division, William Sullivan, mailed the following letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Nov. 21, 1964, anonymously:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a greater liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own, but I am sure they don't have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat that you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that....

King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader....But you are done. Your "honorary" degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat, you are done....

The American public, the church organizations that have been helping -- Protestants, Catholics and Jews -- will know you for what you are: an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. 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 significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

Enclosed with the letter was a composite tape of the most salacious episodes recorded by FBI microphones hidden in King's hotel and motel rooms over the previous 10 months, a tape containing what a later Senate investigation would describe as "private life material."

Regarding the purpose of the tape, a 1976 Senate report by the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, "Dr. Martin Luther King, A Case Study," concluded: "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."

Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved the FBI's request for wiretaps on King in October 1963. Two months later, on Dec. 29, 1963, Time magazine chose King as "Man of the Year." A few days after, on Jan. 8, Sullivan proposed that the FBI select a "new national Negro leader" as King's successor. From January 1964 through November 1965, the FBI installed at least 15 hidden microphones in hotel and motel rooms occupied by King.

Robert Kennedy's approval of the wiretaps came two months after the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event in which more than 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

In an FBI memo on Aug. 30, two days after the march, Sullivan wrote, referring to King, "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security."

Judging King's speech to be "demagogic" and warning that King "stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes," Sullivan recommended a more aggressive and less "legalistic" attack against King. "It may be unrealistic," he advised, "to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before congressional committees that the Communist Party, USA, does wield substantial influence over Negroes which one day could become decisive."

Sullivan, in other words, was recommending a pre-emptive strike, even if the evidence wasn't "conclusive," not unlike the idea of attacking Iraq in order to prevent a mushroom cloud over Chicago. In fact, the FBI couldn't have provided testimony that would stand up in court showing that the Communist Party wielded "substantial influence over Negroes" because it was never true.

The final word from the U.S. Senate's "Final Report" on King: "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.'"

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.