The FBI’s Illegal Surveillance of MLK

Tony Capaccio has an article in Business Week that points out that Marin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech, the 50th anniversary of which was marked with celebrations the other day, is what led directly to the campaign by the FBI to use illegal wiretaps and bugs to blackmail King and other civil rights leaders. That speech scared the hell out of J. Edgar Hoover and his right-hand men:

William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division during the King surveillance program, told the committee in 1975 that, “No holds were barred. We have used [similar] techniques against Soviet agents. [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.”

Sullivan reflected the view of top FBI leaders including Director J. Edgar Hoover, in an Aug. 30, 1963, post-speech memo entitled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”

“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful, demagogic speech” that “he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses,” Sullivan said. “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.”

The speech’s impact and popularity “very directly contributes in a very major way to Sullivan characterizing” King as “the most dangerous Negro’ in the country,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Garrow wrote in an e-mail statement.

“FBI officials viewed the speech as significantly increasing King’s national stature,” Garrow said, making him “measurably more ‘dangerous’ in the FBI’s view than he’d been prior” to it, Garrow said.

Hoover immediately ordered his underlings to find evidence to prove that King was a communist (communist being the go-to slander aimed at everyone the government disapproved of for the last 90 years or so). And as I’ve pointed out many times, Robert Kennedy signed off on the illegal wiretaps and bugs planted in homes, offices and hotel rooms of King and other civil rights leaders, which is why I have never understood why so many liberals revere RFK. He bought into the idiotic right wing lie that King and other civil rights leaders might be communists (and even if that were true, the illegal wiretaps and bugs would still be an appalling violation of the 4th Amendment; the Bill of Rights does not have an addendum that says “except for suspected communists”). If that was done by a Republican, we would rightly blast them. I don’t know why the Kennedy family escapes such criticism so often.

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  • Every history of the FBI has to confront the glaring fact that the FBI, in enforcing the laws, holds itself above them. Its actions have consistently been authoritarian assholery of the highest degree.

    I highly recommend Tim Wieners’ book “Enemies”, which provides a surprisingly dispassionate view of the history of Hoover and the FBI. It’s really really really scary stuff.

  • Being murdered distracts from a lot of sins. If the Kennedy brothers hadn’t been killed, allowing for a lot of questionable what if scenarios about them o be promoted, their public image would be a lot more realistic.

  • colnago80

    Hoover actually blackmailed King into muting his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights enforcement activities because of the information the spying unearthed about the latter’s sexual activities. Too bad King didn’t consult Congressman Cornelius Gallagher who blackmailed Hoover into dropping his investigation of the former over the latter’s same sex love affairs with Clyde Tolson and others.

  • pacal

    The groveling worship of St. John and Robert of Kennedy goes back to the need in many people to worship and adore the sacred and holy leader who can do no wrong. It is in other words delusional, mythological and religious thinking.

    Meanwhile in the real world Robert Kennedy before he was killed gave taped interviews in which he revealed a great deal of animosity against MLK, for being somehow not putting America first.

    Regarding Hoover and MLK, perhaps just how loathsome Hoover’s campaign became is indicated by the FBI sending MLK blackmail tapes to MLK and also a loaded gun. Not so subtly suggesting that MLK kill himself to escape exposure.

  • @timgueguen:

    Being murdered distracts from a lot of sins.

    Which might also help explain why Republicans are no longer calling MLK a communist, but instead are claiming he’d be one of their own if he’d been alive today.

  • krisrhodes

    Alice Cooper’s act is silly but he recently did an AMA on Reddit that is pretty amazing.

  • Chiroptera

    “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.”

    How did they miss the one who just planted fake birth certificates in Hawaiian newspapers after being born in Kenya?

  • naturalcynic

    Being a staffer for Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and Roy “I am not a homosexual, I just have sex with men” Cohn rubbed off on St. Bobby.

  • colnago80

    Re naturalclyknic @ #8

    Roy Cohn died of AIDS all the time denying that he had it.

  • dogmeat

    I don’t know why the Kennedy family escapes such criticism so often.

    For John, I think he gets the benefit of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights act which, while he might have supported them, would not have passed under his presidency and were really only successful due to Johnson’s political acumen and the judicial use of Kennedy’s “martyrdom.” But, much like a reverse version of Carter getting the blame for the 70s recession, Kennedy gets the credit for Johnson’s legislation.

    In Robert’s case, I think it was his adoption of anti-poverty and anti-war stances prior to his assassination that left many with a “what if?” mentality regarding his likely presidency in ’68. **IF** he had actually implemented his platform as policy (much like our current myth-in-chief), at lot of things about this country would likely be very different. Add to that, the Republican southern strategy would have failed which leaves one wondering where the party would be today.