As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover initiated far-reaching surveillance of movement leaders to “neutralize” political dissidents. Concerned that the movement was infiltrated by Communists, Hoover arranged to have Martin Luther King, Jr. watched and wiretapped from 1963 until King’s death in 1968.
Born on 1 January 1895, John Edgar Hoover grew up in a white, middle-class Washington, D.C., neighborhood. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in a program at George Washington University where he attended night classes at the law school and worked at the Library of Congress. In 1917, Hoover passed the bar exam and began working for the Department of Justice. As special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, he helped to direct the Palmer Raids, which resulted in the arrests of thousands of aliens with alleged Communist ties.
In 1924, Hoover became the director of the Bureau of Investigation, which was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935. As the director, Hoover dramatically transformed the agency, establishing a centralized fingerprint file, a crime laboratory, and a training school for police.
After gaining national attention for his campaign against organized crime, Hoover turned his attention to anti-Communist fears brought on by the Cold War and directed a disproportionate amount of the FBI’s surveillance efforts towards civil rights and labor organizations. Hoover stated, “The Reds have done a vast amount of evil damage carrying the doctrines of race revolt and the poison of Bolshevism to the Negroes.” The campaign was expanded in 1956 when Hoover created the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
King was a major target of COINTELPRO, and shortly after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps at both King’s home and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters. Hoover extended this surveillance to microphones in King’s hotel rooms, reportedly to investigate King’s personal ties with Communists. King’s friendship with Stanley Levison was of particular interest to Hoover, who saw Levison’s Communist ties as a possible means to discredit King.
In 1964, when King criticized the FBI for inadequately responding to civil rights complaints, Hoover publicly stated that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” King responded diplomatically, “I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure. He has apparently faltered under the awesome burdens, complexities and responsibilities of his office, therefore, I cannot engage in a public debate with him. I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.”
With support from both Democrat and Republican presidents, Hoover remained at the helm of the FBI for forty-eight years. He died on 2 May 1972 .
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
“Nothing but Sympathy for Hoover , Dr. King Replies to ‘Liar’ Charge,” SCLC Newsletter 2, October-November 1964.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Martin Luther King's Reaction: A Statement and a Disagreement,” U.S. News and World Report, 30 November 1964.
J. Edgar Hoover, “Memo to Clyde Tolson, Alan H. Belmont, Cartha D. DeLoach, Alex Rosen and W.C. Sullivan,” 17 June 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Statement on Joseph Alsop and J. Edgar Hoover's charge of alleged Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement,” 23 April 1964.
Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, “Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans.” Book III, Final Report. 14 April 1976.