Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King

The F.B.I.'s Role

J.Edgar Hoover
J.Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover hated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover wasn't necessarily a racist; he hated anybody who challenged his almost omnipotent power over the American justice system. Hoover didn't like civil rights leaders, he didn't like antiwar protesters, he didn't like social activists and he especially didn't like commies. And if you were part of the FBI in the 1960s, then you had better think the same way. J. Edgar Hoover didn't like inaction, either. If he didn't like you, he didn't just sit around and stew about it, he did something about it. So, when men like Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young said the government was part of a conspiracy to murder King, the government they were talking about was the one run by J. Edgar Hoover.

King first came under scrutiny in 1961 when Hoover asked a subordinate for the department's file on the civil rights leader. In a memo to his supervisor, Agent G.H. Scatterday mentions King briefly: "King thanked Socialist Workers Party for support of bus boycott." Scatterday's report goes on to say King "was not investigated by the FBI" to which J. Edgar Hoover is reported to have asked "why not?" When Hoover asked why not, his subordinates got the point and a file was opened on King. An unclassified memorandum sent up the chain of command and now available in the FBI's Freedom of Information Act reading room shows someone has highlighted King's name on Scatterday's memo and written "Do we have more details?"

Robert Kennedy
Robert Kennedy

Under the direction of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the FBI stepped up its observation of King in 1962 and 1963. Kennedy at one time asked the FBI to develop a plan for covert bugging and electronic surveillance, but later backed down and told the FBI to stop its activities toward King. At the time, Kennedy was concerned about King's ties to the communists and socialists who were actively trying to recruit the American under classes. King himself reportedly attended a Communist Party education program and gave the closing address at one seminar in the 1950s.

Without Kennedy's knowledge, the FBI began an illegal counterintelligence program regarding King and the SCLC. "The program was intended to discredit and neutralize the civil rights leader," the FBI post-assassination report said. Hoover was greatly afraid of communists and was convinced that the reds were attempting to "infiltrate" black society to woo them to the communist side. Having watched Castro — who exhibited no communist leanings while he led his revolution — Hoover was determined not be fooled again when his advisors reported that communist attempts to win support among blacks were met with failure.

Stung by Hoover's ire over botching the Castro takeover of Cuba, FBI underlings began to step-up their activities regarding King and the SCLC. Hoover himself never wavered in his belief that King was a communist, but he refused to allow his agency to act solely on his belief. At first, his subordinates told him that communists did not control the civil rights movement and Hoover said they were wrong. The aides quickly reversed course and said, the boss was right; King was a communist. But Hoover dismissed the claim because no one had provided proof. The only alternative, the deputy directors felt, was to beef up surveillance of King to find the dirt Hoover believed to his core to be there. In 1963, Hoover requested for a second time permission to bug King's residence and offices. This time, Bobby Kennedy agreed, with the caveat that the bugs would be removed by the end of the year if no concrete evidence of communist infiltration was found. With the assassination of his brother, Bobby forgot all about the bugs and Hoover declined to remind his boss. The bugs remained in place and under observation.

A month before John Kennedy's murder, the report based on this increased surveillance was presented to J. Edgar Hoover. "The attached analysis of Communism and the Negro Movement is highly explosive," wrote Assistant to the Director A.H. Belmont. "It can be regarded as a personal attack on Martin Luther King. There is no doubt it will have a heavy impact on the Attorney General and anyone else to whom we disseminate it. It is labeled TOP SECRET." On his personal copy of the memorandum, Hoover wrote: "I am glad that at last you recognize that there exists such influence."

Sparks began to fly between Hoover and King personally in 1962. Interestingly, it was King who threw the first punch by publicly questioning the FBI's handling of a racial incident in Albany, Georgia. Hoover shot back by testifying before a Congressional committee on his belief that communists had infiltrated and were directing the civil rights movement. King responded to this allegation by accusing Hoover of fanning the flames of racism and placating right-wing reactionaries.

Later, Hoover told a group of reporters that King was "the most notorious liar in the country." King and Hoover reached a fragile truce in late 1964 after they met face-to-face in an attempt to iron out differences. About this meeting, Hoover told underlings "he had taken the ball away from King at the beginning." For his part, King apologized for remarks he had made and thanked Hoover for the work the FBI was doing to investigate civil rights violations. The cease-fire lasted just two weeks. On December 14, 1964, the Southern Christian Educational Fund repeated King's criticisms of Hoover and called upon supporters to write President Johnson to have the president fire Hoover. The mudslinging continued over the years, including one episode where Hoover met with an Atlanta official in Washington for President Johnson's inauguration. Hoover leaked unflattering details of King's personal life obtained through wiretaps to this official, who returned to Atlanta and passed them on to Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., who then confronted his son.


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