Declassified Documents and the Civil Rights Movement

The Top Secret History of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and Martin Luther King Jr

November 20, 1964: Bimini, Bahamas (AP)—

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said Thursday the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, is “following the path of appeasement…in the South”. The Negro integration leader, smarting under criticism by Hoover, also accused the FBI chief of “faltering under the heavy burden and the criticisms of his office.” His comments came in reply to Hoover’s statement in a rare news conference Wednesday that King is “the most notorious liar in the country.”

Job Pressures Too Great?: King Sees Hoover Faltering. Boston Globe. Nov 20, 1964. p.1

The Government Information Library at the University of Colorado holds an extensive microfilm collection of FBI Investigation files on popular political and cultural figures such as Malcolm X, The Weather Underground, Abbie Hoffman and The Beatles. These files, in conjunction with resources such as the ProQuest History Vault and the Historical Newspaper Collection, uncover many secrets held by the FBI during the most crucial turning-points in American history.

This story aims to explain, albeit briefly, the strained relationship between Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the height of their public conflict in the Fall of 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown discussing a forthcoming speech, March 18, 1964, from his home in Atlanta, Ga.  Dr. King said that he had stepped up demonstrations in the south during the summer.  (AP Photo)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is shown discussing a forthcoming speech, March 18, 1964, from his home in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. King said that he had stepped up demonstrations in the south during the summer. (AP Photo)

In October 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were busy investigating the so-called ‘Communist Infiltration of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’. From 1958-1980 the FBI compiled a file of over 13,000 pages on the SCLC. These files are located in the Government Information library microfilm collection at the University of Colorado.

Long before King won the Nobel Prize, however, Hoover had ordered wiretaps on King’s telephones, assigned FBI agents to follow his every move, and recorded private meetings held in hotel rooms, churches, and conference rooms.

The image above, scanned and uploaded from microfilm, is an FBI memo sent to J. Edgar Hoover detailing a brief interview between an FBI agent and one of King’s advisers, Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In it the agent states that “an aide contended today that ‘there are no communists” in Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. To which Hoover responds in handwriting at the top of the page, “Look into this- of course no information of any kind is to be furnished”. The handwriting on the bottom states, “Abernathy’s as big a liar as King“.

After learning of Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize, J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia and resentment intensified. In response, he stated that “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize”. This comment was closely followed by a press conference in which he termed King, “the most notorious liar in the country”. In response, King commented, publicly, that Hoover had “faltered under the awesome burden, complexities and responsibilities of his office” and King had “nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well”. Meanwhile, during a private telephone conversation (recorded by the FBI) Hoover overhead Martin Luther King characterize him as “old and getting senile”.

Just before King left for the small island of Bimini to write his Peace Prize acceptance speech, Hoover and the FBI made another attempt to tarnish his moral character by leaking a story to the Atlanta Constitution about King’s private life based on information acquired by FBI agents from hotel room recordings. Hoover was incensed by King’s “immoral private life” and pushed for a newspaper feature on King’s extramarital affair. The newspaper had a different approach: editor Eugene Patterson warned that “what you’re doing is the story….the federal police force of the United States is doing this to an individual person” (in Judgment Days by Nick Kotz, p.239).

Further evidence that Hoover’s agents were directly spying on the SCLC. Remaining pages of this document explain, at length, precisely what was discussed during King’s private conference with advisers.

This exchange of insults, insinuations, espionage, and counter-espionage sparked a firestorm of retorts that eventually led to a high-profile meeting between the two men on December 1, 1964. This meeting may have calmed the public’s perception of tension between these two men. However, the eavesdropping, stalking, and spying did not end; King’s private conversations were still scrutinized by Hoover.  His family, friends and associates were still badgered by FBI agents. And our story comes to an abrupt ending with the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Despite Hoover’s distrust of King and the SCLC, the FBI was responsible for investigating the assassination. Many of these materials are available today: the Government Information library also owns a microfilm series of the FBI’s Martin Luther King Assassination File.

Tune-in later for more exciting discoveries from the Government Information Library at UC-Boulder!

Additional References and Useful Sources:

Declassified Documents Reference System

Communist infiltration of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and, J. Edgar Hoover’s official and confidential file on Martin Luther King, Jr [microfilm]: F.B.I. investigation files

Kotz, Nick (2005). Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. New York: Houghton Mifflin

ProQuest History Vault: Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century, Federal Government Records

ProQuest Historical Newspapers

These resources are only available at CU-Boulder. 

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