The Man Who Knew Exactly What the F.B.I. Was Doing to Martin Luther King Jr.
We have long known about the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover’s animus toward the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover built an extensive apparatus of surveillance and disruption designed to destroy King and to drive a wedge between King and President Lyndon Johnson.
But historians, journalists and contemporary political leaders have largely portrayed Hoover as a kind of uncontrollable vigilante, an all too powerful and obsessive lawman, and Johnson as a genuine civil rights partner until King broke with the president over the Vietnam War. In reality, as new documents reveal, Johnson was more of an antagonist to King and a conspirator with Hoover than he has been portrayed.
By personalizing the F.B.I.’s assault on King, Americans cling to a view of history that isolates a few bad actors who opposed the civil rights movement — including Hoover, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and the Birmingham lawman Bull Connor. They thus fail to acknowledge the institutionalized, well-organized resistance to change in our society. Americans prefer a version of history in which most decent people did the right thing in the end.
It’s time to move past that comfortable story and recognize the power structure that supported the F.B.I.’s campaign. Many Americans — starting with the president — thought movement activists like King posed threats to the established order and needed to be watched and controlled. Members of the press could have exposed the bureau’s campaign. And many government officials who could have stopped, curtailed or exposed the F.B.I.’s attack on King instead enabled or encouraged it.
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F.B.I. records declassified in the past several years and documents from the Johnson archives released in 2022 force us to reconsider the nature of Johnson’s involvement in the F.B.I.’s campaign against King. The White House documents — part of a huge cache of F.B.I. memos that has only begun to see daylight — suggest that Johnson, from the beginning of his presidency in 1963 to King’s assassination in 1968, was apprised almost weekly by Hoover himself on the F.B.I.’s surveillance of King.
Johnson did nothing to stop or rein in the F.B.I., even after at least one top administration official expressed concern. In all likelihood, that was because Johnson saw strategic advantage in knowing about King’s activities as he worked with King on civil rights legislation, and perhaps he saw even more utility when King began to criticize the president’s policies, especially concerning the Vietnam War. At the same time, according to the president’s aides, Johnson clearly enjoyed having access to the prurient details of King’s life.
Both Johnson and Hoover seemed to take personal offense at King’s audacity to criticize the federal government and the F.B.I. Johnson had a close relationship with Hoover before he became president, often using the bureau to vet his Senate staff. Both men understood the value of gathering inside information on rivals, and Johnson, more than most presidents, used the bureau for this. Hoover liked being of service to the president. Hoover gave the Johnsons a beagle puppy, and the Johnsons named the pet J. Edgar. (The dog was eventually renamed Edgar.) Hoover was also indebted to Johnson for protecting him from the requirement to retire at age 70.
Since last year’s release of hundreds of pages from the files of Mildred Stegall, Johnson’s closest personal aide and longtime administrative assistant, a more nuanced — and damaging — picture of the partnership between Johnson and Hoover has emerged. The sheer volume of these memos to the president — more than 250 over five years — further demonstrates Johnson’s intimate familiarity with the F.B.I.’s campaign.
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Ms. Stegall joined Johnson’s Senate staff in 1956. In the White House, she assumed custody of many of Johnson’s personal financial and campaign files when another aide, Walter Jenkins, left the White House in 1964. She later became the primary liaison between the White House and the F.B.I. After Johnson had the opportunity to read the pages (and he probably didn’t read them all), Ms. Stegall locked them in a vault that also contained Johnson’s personal business papers, as well as the tapes Johnson made of his own telephone conversations, which were made public years ago. In other words, the president and the director of the F.B.I. had established a protocol for private and immediate communication.
Hoover used the F.B.I. assistant director Cartha DeLoach as his special liaison to the White House. In a memo dated Jan. 14, 1964, Mr. DeLoach wrote to Hoover to say that Mr. Jenkins had read the most recent report on King “word for word,” considered it “one of the most repulsive incidents that he knew of” and planned to tell Johnson about it later the same day. According to the memo, Mr. Jenkins told Mr. DeLoach “that the F.B.I. could perform a good service to the country if this matter could somehow be confidentially given to members of the press.”
Mr. DeLoach told Mr. Jenkins that Hoover already “had this in mind” but planned to “obtain additional information prior to discussing it with certain friends.” The F.B.I. also fed Johnson a steady diet of information on King’s conversations with his top advisers, gleaned from telephone wiretaps and microphones planted in hotel rooms, that the president could use in managing his relationship with King.
Soon after Mr. DeLoach’s memo, journalists at many of the nation’s biggest news outlets — including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Daily News, Newsweek and The Atlanta Constitution — were handed salacious files about King’s extramarital affairs and presented with lists of questions the F.B.I. wanted reporters to ask King. These reporters have gotten a lot of credit for not publishing the prurient details of the F.B.I.’s surveillance, but at the same time, none of them chose to report that the F.B.I. was conducting a massive surveillance campaign against law-abiding American citizens.
In addition to the president and the media, other officials at the F.B.I. — acting independently of Hoover although no doubt with the hopes of pleasing their boss — worked to ruin King. Scores of ranking officials and agents at the F.B.I., dozens of elected officials and several informants embedded in King’s inner circles knew what was going on, and none, as far as the public records indicate, blew a whistle on the campaign.
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Throughout 1964, generally considered the high point of the King-Johnson partnership, Hoover apprised Johnson of King’s travel, his associates, the protest strategies King was considering, which government officials had contacted King and private things King had to say about Johnson and his administration. Hoover reported on an administration official who wanted King to participate in a memorial to President John Kennedy, what King planned to say to the Republican platform committee, how the civil rights leader was considering a fast around the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge and a host of other pieces of political surveillance. When an F.B.I. wiretap picked up Coretta Scott King complaining with her husband that they had not yet received congratulations from the White House on his Nobel Prize, Hoover reported the conversation to Johnson.
Today, many of the memos Hoover sent to Johnson might be described as opposition research. They show that even as Johnson and King worked together, King was still treated as an adversary to be managed and controlled.
The surveillance continued until King’s death on April 4, 1968: On April 1, Hoover wrote to Ms. Stegall to say the president might want to be aware that King and his closest adviser, Stanley Levison, had been discussing Johnson’s re-election campaign and that King said Robert Kennedy, in his Democratic primary bid, “is the only man that can stop President Johnson.”
Hoover believed that Communists exerted influence on King, and he drove F.B.I. agents to find ties. But people with past Communist ties were everywhere in the 1960s, as Hoover and Johnson knew. The issue of Communist influence, in the end, served mostly to justify the campaign to undermine King. Hoover, who referred to King as “the burrhead,” hated to see King earn respect and gain influence, especially as he learned the details of King’s personal life, and he became determined to use those details to undercut King’s reputation.
Fundamentally, Hoover’s campaign revolved around power — making sure King didn’t have too much of it. After witnessing King’s success at the March on Washington in 1963, William Sullivan, the F.B.I. assistant director responsible for the domestic intelligence division under Hoover, made the decision to bug King’s room at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. “We must mark him now,” Sullivan wrote in a 1963 memo, “as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.” Less than two months later, Robert Kennedy, then the attorney general, signed off on the decision to wiretap King’s home and offices.
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F.B.I. officials supplied journalists with files containing evidence gathered from listening devices planted in King’s hotel rooms. But no journalist at a major publication exposed what the F.B.I. was doing. In fact, it wasn’t until March 8, 1971, when activists broke into an F.B.I. office, took files, copied them and sent them to two members of Congress and three newspapers that the public began to get a sense of the extent of the bureau’s surveillance of King and other activists. Even then, while The Washington Post courageously decided to publish the story, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and both representatives sent the files back to the F.B.I.
Clearly, Hoover did not act alone. In fixating on Hoover, we ignore the phalanx of informed government officials, from the president on down, and let the broader American public and media off the hook. We overlook that most Americans did not approve of the civil rights movement while it was happening — just before the March on Washington, a Gallup poll found that only 23 percent of Americans had favorable opinions of the proposed rally. Seeing the civil rights movement as dangerous was not a fringe position.
These revelations do not diminish Hoover’s core responsibility in one of the most troubling episodes in American law enforcement history. Rather, they show the widespread support for and complicity in the campaign against King, and as such they should force a re-examination of the conditions that led so many Americans to turn their backs on one of our great moral leaders. To take that seriously requires a broader reckoning about how the government, the media and the public react to those who challenge the status quo.
“The course of the civil rights movement may have been altered” by the F.B.I.’s campaign against King, wrote Ramsey Clark, Johnson’s third attorney general. “The prejudice may have reached men who might otherwise have given great support — including even the president of the United States.”
It surely did, as King understood all too well.
“Let’s face it,” King said in a phone call to Mr. Levison days before his assassination. “We do have a great public-relations setback where my image and leadership are concerned.” He added, “It will put many Negroes in the position of saying, ‘Well, Martin Luther King is at the end of his rope.’”
Tragically, we know exactly how King felt, because the F.B.I. recorded his call.
Jonathan Eig is the author of the forthcoming book “King: A Life.” Jeanne Theoharis is the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” which has been adapted for a documentary."