Perhaps the most shocking example of the FBI’s abuse of power was its campaign of unrelenting surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover set out to destroy King by using the full powers of the FBI against him. Various theories have been offered for Hoover’s motive, and a combination of circumstances may have been involved. Hoover was enraged when King criticized the FBI. The FBI’s stated rationale for bugging and tapping King was to uncover “Communist” influence on the civil rights leader. Nor was Hoover pleased with King’s growing success in the use of nonviolent confrontation. The police dogs of Birmingham snarling and ripping at black men and women in the summer of 1963 created a bad image for law enforcement. “We Shall Overcome” fell harshly on Hoover’s ears.
William Sullivan, the assistant director of the FBI under Hoover, said that Hoover’s view of blacks was the root cause of the campaign against King. “The real reason was that Hoover disliked blacks,” Sullivan told me. “He disliked Negroes. All you have to do is see how many he hired before Bobby came in. None. He told me himself he would never have one so long as he was FBI Director. He disliked the civil rights movement. You had a black of national prominence heading the movement. He gave Hoover a peg by criticizing the FBI. And King upset Hoover’s nice cozy relationship with Southern sheriffs and police. They helped us on bank robberies and such, and they kept the black man in his place. Hoover didn’t want anything to upset that relationship with law-enforcement authorities in the South.”
In the end, one is forced to conclude that the FBI sought to discredit King because J. Edgar Hoover was a racist. Hoover attacked King because King was black and powerful, and his power was growing. Who could foretell what might happen if the black people of America were to become mobilized behind such a leader? To Hoover, Martin Luther King was uppity and biggity, and he had to be stopped.
The FBI’s fear that King might become a black “messiah” was expressed in precisely these words in a memo from headquarters to field offices on March 4, 1968, one month before King’s death. The memo said one of the goals of the FBI’s counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) against “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” would be to prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Martin Luther King might “aspire to this position,” the memo added. “King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism.”
Just before King’s march on Washington in August 1963, Sullivan and Hoover began an exchange of memos about the degree of communist influence among blacks in the civil rights movement. Sullivan, who had earlier reported to Hoover that he saw no …
Copyright © 1976 David Wise, from the forthcoming book The American Police State, to be published by Random House.
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.