The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began monitoring Martin Luther King, Jr., in December 1955, during his involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott, and engaged in covert operations against him throughout the 1960s. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was personally hostile toward King, believing that the civil rights leader was influenced by Communists. This animosity increased after April 1964, when King called the FBI “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the Negro in the deep South” (King, 23 April 1964). Under the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) King was subjected to various kinds of FBI surveillance that produced alleged evidence of extramarital affairs, though no evidence of Communist influence.
The FBI was created in 1909 as the Justice Department’s unit to investigate federal crimes. Hoover became FBI director in 1924 and served until his death in 1972. Throughout the 1930s the FBI’s role expanded when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the FBI to research “subversives” in the United States, and Congress passed a series of laws increasing the types of federal crimes falling under the FBI’s jurisdiction. During World War II, the FBI was further authorized to investigate threats to national security. This loosely defined mission formed the heading under which the FBI began to investigate the civil rights movement.
The FBI initially monitored King under its Racial Matters Program, which focused on individuals and organizations involved in racial politics. Although the FBI raised concerns as early as March 1956, that King was associating with card-carrying members of the Communist Party, King’s alleged ties with communism did not become the focus of FBI investigations under the existing Communist Infiltration Program, designed to investigate groups and individuals subject to Communist infiltration, until 1962. In February 1962, Hoover told Attorney General Robert Kennedy that Stanley Levison, one of King’s closest advisors, was “a secret member of the Communist Party” (Hoover, 14 February 1962). In the following months, Hoover deployed agents to find subversive material on King, and Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps on King’s home and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices in October 1963.
Hoover responded to King’s criticisms of the Bureau’s performance in civil rights cases by announcing at a press conference in November 1964, that King was the “most notorious liar in the country” (Herbers, “Dr. King Rebuts Hoover”). Surprised by the accusation, King replied that he could only have sympathy for Hoover as he must be “under extreme pressure” to make such a statement (Herbers, “Dr. King Rebuts Hoover”). King asked an intermediary to set up a meeting between himself and Hoover to understand what had led to the comment. Andrew Young, a King aide who was present at the meeting, recalled that there was “not even an attitude of hostility” between the two, but at about this same time, the FBI anonymously sent King a compromising tape recording of him carousing in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, along with an anonymous letter that SCLC staff interpreted as encouraging King to commit suicide to avoid public embarrassment (Senate Select Committee, 167).
Hoover continued to approve investigations of King and covert operations to discredit King’s standing among financial supporters, church leaders, government officials, and the media. When King condemned the Vietnam War in a speech at Riverside Church on 4 April 1967, the FBI “interpreted this position as proof he ‘has been influenced by Communist advisers’” and stepped up their covert operations against him (Senate Select Committee, 180). The FBI considered initiating another formal COINTELPRO against King and fellow anti-war activist Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1967, when the two were rumored to be contemplating a run for the presidency, but ruled it out on the grounds that such a program would be more effective after the pair had officially announced their candidacy.
In August 1967, the FBI created a COINTELPRO against “Black Nationalist–Hate Groups,” which targeted SCLC, King, and other civil rights leaders. King was identified as a target because the FBI believed that he could become a “messiah” who could unify black nationalists “should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism” (Senate Select Committee, 180). In the last few months of King’s life, the FBI intensified its efforts to discredit him and to “neutralize” SCLC (Senate Select Committee, 180).
According to a U.S. Senate Committee convened in the 1970s to investigate the FBI’s domestic intelligence operations, the impact of the FBI’s efforts to discredit SCLC and King on the civil rights movement “is unquestionable” (Senate Select Committee, 183). The committee determined that: “Rather than trying to discredit the alleged Communists it believed were attempting to influence Dr. King, the Bureau adopted the curious tactic of trying to discredit the supposed target of Communist Party interest—Dr. King himself” (Senate Select Committee, 85).
Though some civil rights activists were aware that they were under surveillance, they still had to rely upon the Bureau to investigate racial discrimination cases. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the FBI’s jurisdiction in segregation and voting rights cases expanded significantly, and the FBI’s arrests in the Mississippi triple murder case during Freedom Summer demonstrated some measure of public commitment to civil rights investigations.
After King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI successfully launched a large scale investigation to find his killer.
FBI Special Agent in Charge, Mobile, to J. Edgar Hoover, 4 January 1956, in Papers 3:96.
John Herbers, “Dr. King Rebuts Hoover Charges,” New York Times, 20 November 1964.
Hoover to Robert F. Kennedy, 14 February 1962, FBIDG-NN-Sc.
King, Statement on J. Edgar Hoover’s charge of alleged Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement, 23 April 1964, MCMLK-RWWL.
O’Reilly, Racial Matters, 1989.
Senate Select Committee, Book III: Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports, 94th Cong., 2d sess., 1976, S. Rep. 94–755.