On or about the 6th November 1964, this letter was posted to Martin Luther King. The civil rights leader had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for work in campaigning for racial equality in the United States. The letter, written as though it was from a black civil rights worker, urged him to commit suicide. He was, according to the anonymous author, ‘a complete fraud and a great liability.’
Accompanying the letter was a tape recording of selected excerpts from the taps of King’s telephones and the bugs from his hotel rooms. The author threatened to reveal King’s adulterous affairs that were clearly evident on the audio recording. In order to stop his ‘filthy, abnormal fraudulent self’ from being bared to the nation, King was urged to commit suicide within 34 days. The letter stated that the timing had been ‘selected for a specific reason’ but did not reveal the practical significance. There was indeed a logical reasoning to the timing – it was the day that King was due to receive his Nobel Prize. While the nature of such a letter is disturbing, what is more alarming is that members of J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) authored the letter. The agent in charge of the operation was Assistant Director Cartha D ‘Deke’ DeLoach although it is unlikely he personally wrote the letter. When King took no action DeLoach tried to coerce Washington Post chief Benjamin Bradlee into publishing the details, but Bradlee refused.
The letter was part of a wider undertaking by the FBI to discredit King and the campaign for civil rights. The operation consisted of a number of elements from a series of Counter Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO) that targeted King and his acquaintances between 1958 and his death in April 1968. King had originally been brought to the attention of the FBI when the Bureau investigated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Concerned that members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) had infiltrated the SCLC, Hoover had organised a covert investigation under the title COINTELPRO-CPUSA. The operation – like all of those that targeted King – failed to find any concrete evidence that affiliated King with communism.
King was also targeted under the COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist campaign. This COINTELPRO encompassed every black nationalist or black power group active in the United States. According to a FBI memo of August 25, 1967, the objective of the campaign was to ‘expose, disrupt, miscredit, discredit, or otherwise neutralise’ the various groups. Targets included the SCLC, the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Bureau attempted to discredit the groups by suggesting infiltration by communists and therefore deny the groups respectability. Other methods of propaganda used by the Bureau to hinder the effectiveness of the groups included disinformation and slander. King was not alone in being targeted for personal campaigns – Stokely Carmichael, Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X were just a few of the many leaders, national and local, that the Bureau focused on.
King however was not just targeted because of his political views. It is true that Hoover had initially drawn the Bureau’s attention to King because he saw him as a threat to the socio-political status quo. However, continued efforts by the Bureau were due to Hoover’s own jealousy of the public adoration that King was receiving from the public. He had convinced Attorney General Robert F Kennedy in November 1963 to authorise the electronic surveillance of King. Kennedy, concerned about the harm that possible revelation of King’s communist associates could do to his brother’s presidency, made a Faustian pact with Hoover. The information that the Bureau acquired was used by Hoover to wage a campaign that was both political and personal in nature. This was totally outside the remit of the Bureau.
The letter was initially made public in 1975 as part of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. The Church Committee, as it was popularly called after its chairman Senator Frank Church, investigated the post-war activities of the US intelligence community in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The letter to King and the COINTELPRO operations were just two of a number of nefarious activities undertaken by the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The investigation lasted for twelve months and produced a final report that totalled 7 volumes of hearings and exhibits and 6 books of reports that both shocked and dismayed Americans.
The letter to King was originally redacted by the Church Committee so that the majority of it was unseen by the American public. But in the summer of 2014 an uncensored version was found by Yale historian Beverley Gage when she was researching for her book on J Edgar Hoover at the National Archives in Washington. Gage told the New York Times that she found the letter ‘tucked away in a reprocessed set of his official and confidential files.’ If the redacted version had caused so much alarm to the American public in 1975, the uncensored version confirms the despair at one of the Bureau’s most desperate and immoral periods of its existence.