During our recent Coast to Coast show one of the subjects that came up, as it routinely does, was Hoover’s obsession with MLK – due to MLK’s taking the FBI to task for not inserting itself into the racial violence in the south. That is a subject we deal with at some length in Killing King and it is clear that Hoover directed a literal personal vendetta against King.
Other than his ire with anyone making negative remarks about the Bureau, the only real piece of information that fed Hoover’s vendetta – and gave it any legs at all – was the fact that one of MLK’s early associates, a legal advisor and fund raiser had admittedly been politically a communist in earlier years. That fact was made known to King but he considered it ancient history and refused to totally disassociate himself from a long time friend and someone who was clearly a civil rights supporter.
Hoover used that piece of information extensively against MLK, over a number of years. Its certainly true that he developed what can only be thought of as a hatred for King and that he directed a number of extremely dirty tricks at MLK. On the other hand, its important to know that many of those same dirty tricks were directed at a number of other individuals and by 1968 had become standard FBI practices in targeting a wide range of individuals and groups, from racial agitators to anti-war protesters. To fully appreciate how broad such campaigns became, I would encourage the reading of a great work on those excess, Spying on America.
If you were not involved in protests in the late 1960s it may shock you, if you were you may not be at all surprised.
What often does not get discussed however is the extent to which Hoover’s obsession was becoming self defeating by 1968. Stu and I have reviewed a series of anti-King FBI documents related to the upcoming Poor People’s March on Washington as well as reports and memorandum Hoover was circulating to various agencies and senior administration officials. It becomes clear that the warnings were so repetitive and the smears so obvious that Hoover was literally beginning to be ignored – his prejudices were just to obvious and his tirades to blatant.
The FBI tactics that were being prepared to oppose the Washington march even sound trivial – including renting all the buses in certain areas so no transportation would be available to the march organizers. As an illustration of how Hoover was beginning to be ignored, even his request to tap the phones at MLKs march headquarters was rejected by the Attorney General.
All in all, the take away from all the documents and correspondence is that Hoover himself remained obsessed with King, but at other senior levels of FBI leadership, the concerns being expressed were much more about the violence being advocated by other black leaders and activists groups, not about King and his peaceful protest initiatives.