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Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C.

Why did the FBI wage a war on Martin Luther King Jr.?

Image: Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. | Public Domain

Along with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. A proud, intelligent and charismatic man, MLK was an important figurehead who created real change and inspired not only African Americans but all people the world over.

Where his spiritual brother Malcolm X advocated more aggressive means to equity and equality, MLK strove for integration and peaceful forms of protest and progress. Both men were considerable thorns in the side of the established order of things at the time. That was, after all, their shared goal. As such, ‘The Man’ disliked both men immensely.

Dr. King wasn’t given an easier time of it by the federal government, though. He was afforded no privileges just because he preached quieter, less violent means of civil objection. Both men were surveilled and harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Rumours have persisted for decades that the FBI may have even been involved in both men’s assassinations.

So just why did the FBI and US government go to such lengths to try and destroy Martin Luther King Jr., a man now regarded as one of the most important and best-loved figures from recent history?

The communist panic

Whether or not there were any ulterior, secret or obfuscated motives for the FBI’s targeted campaign of scrutiny and persecution of King isn’t widely known. The main reason that is agreed upon by historians and experts seems to be rooted in the paranoia around communism that existed at the time.

The Cold War, McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis… Almost every major event in the US in the 1960s could be connected to America’s fight against the impact of communism and the protection of its own capitalist and democratic values.

Intelligence agencies like the FBI were extremely sensitive to any perceived connections between civil rights activists and communist ideologies. In the 1950s and 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI became increasingly preoccupied with what they viewed as communist infiltration in civil rights organisations. They believed that individuals advocating for racial equality and social justice might well be influenced or manipulated by communist ideologies, domestic or foreign in origin. As a result, the FBI conducted extensive and unrelenting surveillance on MLK, attempting to find evidence of his communist ties. Almost to the point of obsession.

In the end, they could find almost no credible evidence connecting King's civil rights work with any form of communist interference. The biggest irony is that starting in the early 1950s, King aggressively opposed communism, proclaiming that it was inherently at odds with Christian values.

J. Edgar’s Hoover’s personal vendetta

FBI head honcho Hoover had a strong animosity towards MLK. His negative attitude was rooted in both personal and ideological reasons. The animosity between Hoover and King is well-documented and was a significant factor in shaping the FBI's approach to the civil rights movement during that era.

Hoover saw the leaders of the civil rights movement as dangerous subversives who posed a very real and very direct threat to the American way of life. He was prepared to try and destroy individuals like King, whom he saw as the country's adversaries, by using the weight of the FBI's immense power.

Hoover amassed a massive collection of information on a wide range of persons by gathering dirt on both public servants and private individuals. He did, however, seem to have a palpable dislike, rather specifically, for MLK.

It’s been suggested that Hoover’s disdain for MLK extended beyond the political. Plenty believe that the FBI director was racist. At the very least he didn’t support the civil rights movement. While he never openly expressed racist sentiments, his actions and policies undoubtedly contributed to a wider climate of racial discrimination and inequality.

The Three Phases

The FBI's operations were divided into three main phases, according to historian David Garrow. He laid them out in his painstakingly researched book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.:

  • 1962-63: Collect and disseminate information to demonstrate any communist influence on King and the civil rights movement in general
  • 1963-65: Gather and release information that could be used to expose or discredit King
  • 1965-68: Gain access to and circulate information regarding King's opposition to the Vietnam War and its communist origins

The shocking letter suggesting MLK take his own life

A congressional inquiry conducted in 1976 described the FBI's anti-King efforts as ‘one of the most abusive of all FBI programs’. And it’s no surprise, especially when you learn about one particular letter which was sent to King by The Bureau.

The letter, which was posted back in 1964, was essentially blackmail. Detailing a series of false accusations against him that the FBI threatened to release, it also strongly urged King to take his own life. The intent behind the letter was to psychologically and emotionally harm him, tarnish his reputation and disrupt the civil rights movement as much as possible. The FBI sought to undermine King's leadership and create divisions within the movement by exploiting personal vulnerabilities. It was about as underhanded, devious and ethically unsound as these things get.

The existence of the letter became publicly known in the years following King's death. It's now considered the most reprehensible example of the extreme measures taken by the FBI in its efforts to discredit and neutralise civil rights leaders during the 1960s. The discrediting campaign against King was later exposed during the investigations of the Church Committee in the 1970s, leading to increased public awareness and condemnation of the FBI's actions.

Were the FBI involved in MLK’s assassination?

It’s a matter of indisputable record that the feds waged a war on MLK when he was alive. What’s slightly murkier is whether or not anyone inside the federal government knew about, planned or conspired to have the man killed. Plenty of folks believe it to be the case, much in the same way that the CIA has been so heavily linked with JFK’s assassination.

US intelligence and security services were certainly busy in the 60s and unafraid to embark on some controversial, nefarious and even quite illegal investigations and missions. Cultural, social, economic and political events were such that many senior government and intelligence officials felt compelled to sign off on eyebrow-raising projects for ‘the greater good’.

The CIA had The Phoenix Program, MKUltra and Operation CHAOS. The Department of Defense pushed for the false flag-heavy Operation Northwoods to justify starting a war with Cuba. The FBI had their Counter Intelligence Program and break-in/illegal wiretapping operations (until all that imploded with The Watergate Scandal in 1972). Throw in the fact that US intelligence had tried to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro for years and the prospect of them doing something similar to a ‘troublesome’ MLK becomes less unlikely.

That said, there’s no publicly available evidence that the FBI - or any other US government agency - were involved in Dr. King’s murder. The official investigation and consensus among historians and authorities is that James Earl Ray was the gunman who killed him. All subsequent evidence and investigations have consistently pointed to Ray as a lone-wolf perpetrator.