Why Contemporary Americans Need to Understand J. Edgar Hoover’s Role in the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Writer's comment: I composed this essay for Dr. Kathryn Olmsted’s history senior seminar on the role paranoia and conspiracy theories have played in shaping American culture, politics, and history. I chose to write about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s possible role in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After I had completed several pages outlining (and agreeing with) conspiracy theorists’ arguments, however, I felt dissatisfied with my conclusions: yes, Hoover’s policies towards King had probably contributed to his eventual murder. But what was the point of contemporary Americans like myself to continue examining King’s death, and how did this truth-searching lend insight into our society? I hope to have addressed these questions in the latter section of my essay.
Instructor's comment: This fine paper is the end product of a quarter-long research seminar on conspiracy theories in U.S. history. The students read general works on conspiracy theories and studied different theories each week. Throughout the quarter, they researched a conspiracy theory of their choice. Arianna was interested in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but she realized that she did not have the time or the resources to come to a definitive conclusion about a conspiracy. So she decided to take a very sophisticated approach. In the essay, she does not attempt to determine whether the FBI had a role in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as some conspiracy theorists claim. Instead, she skillfully sets the King assassination in its proper political context and seeks to understand why many Americans believe in a conspiracy. She not only makes a persuasive argument, but she shows why members of her generation should investigate these conspiracy theories and understand their consequences.
—Kathryn Olmsted, History
It is easy to accept the official story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. As the greatest, most successful challenger to America’s legalized bigotry since the Civil War, King accumulated countless enemies throughout his reform efforts, and it requires no great leap of faith or logic to believe that he was killed by a lone-acting, racist Southerner who resented his efforts to change the status quo. The public continues to be fed this superficial version of King’s killing; it is, for the most part, portrayed as a regrettable, but unsurprising event given the social atmosphere of the time period. Most Americans never get the chance to interpret his life (or death) in the context of the FBI’s vigorous efforts to undercut King’s work; they see his struggles as having been pitted solely against the ideology of the ex-Confederacy. Meanwhile, the federal government takes credit for pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proclaiming a national holiday for King, rarely having to explain the dark facts about the FBI’s illegal persecution of King at the behest of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover. Nevertheless, despite this widely-disseminated and overly-simplistic yet traditional understanding of the event in American history, Congressional committees, journalists, and individual citizens who have investigated his assassination have uncovered undeniable proof of the FBI conspiracy to destroy King’s credibility during his lifetime, as well as extensive evidence that points to its involvement in his death.
Whether or not FBI leaders directly ordered King’s assas-sination and the subsequent cover-up of the plot, the FBI’s ir-refutable attempts to undermine his Civil Rights Movement leadership lend credence to conspiracy theorists’ insistence on its participation in his murder. In particular, much of the FBI’s supposed investigations of King under the guise of “national security” now appear to have served the purpose of discredit-ing him for Hoover’s personal revenge. Indeed, a conspiracy theorist cannot help but notice how the official profile of King’s assassin closely parallels the true biography of his greatest lifetime adversary—Hoover, too, was a Southern racist who rationalized his personal desire for King’s destruction in terms of positively changing the political direction of American socie-ty. In this essay, I first argue that conspiracy advocates theorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination as the final result in J. Edgar Hoover’s long, unsuccessful campaign to take personal vengeance upon a man who had had the nerve to point out problems in the operation of the FBI and in the America that Hoover had helped to build. Then, I discuss why it is important for us, as American citizens, to understand these theories of a government conspiracy in King’s death, and how, whether or not the truth ever becomes public knowledge, we must continue to search for it.
The FBI and King’s Character Assassination
In order to understand how conspiracy theorists connect Hoover’s vendetta against King to the assassination, we must determine the purpose behind his initial efforts to destroy King’s authority over Americans. Originally, he targeted King as a step in his greater mission to undermine two other powers he found equally offensive to his individual vision for America: the civil rights movement ideology, and his young, critical boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who supported it. As Richard Hack explains in his biography, Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Hoover felt that the former, whose believers agitated for integration, endangered the peace of the South and that forcing whites to comply with the laws would result in violence.1 By passively-aggressively in-terpreting state civil rights enforcement as being outside federal jurisdiction and selectively tying movement leaders to communists,2 Hoover managed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s to generally avoid having to use the FBI to enforce the civil liberties it was designed to protect. Because of his antipathy toward the movement, he naturally considered the appointment of the youthful, progressive Kennedy as head of the Department of Justice to be a further rejection of his ideals. In one of his most vituperative comments regarding the changing times, he lamented that in the 1961 presidential ad-ministration, “experience gave way to inexperience and a pretty wife.”3 Ultimately, he viewed both Kennedy and the enforcement of civil rights as threats to the American society in which he most comfortably operated and which he had signif-icantly engineered, and he used his power as FBI director to preserve his personal vision of it.
Attacking King, therefore, was originally just another of Hoover’s means for weakening these two other, seemingly more influential forces. In this mindset, Hoover ordered a Communist Infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement (COMIN-FIL) investigation of King starting in 1962 in the hopes of finding connections between him or his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and known communists, despite the fact that according to Michael Friedly and David Gallen in Martin Luther King, Jr.: The FBI File, “the Bureau was well aware that King was neither a communist nor affiliated with the communist party.”4 This was one of the often-utilized and usually prof-itable tactics the FBI employed to neutralize anyone who threatened to disrupt the ideal image of America according to Hoover: he constantly “used the specter of communism as a weapon against those who sought to change the status quo.”5 Conspiracy theorists point to these early, trumped-up investi-gations of King as examples of Hoover’s rationalization for abusing his powerful public position to accomplish his own private goals. As Kenneth O’Reilly points out in “Racial Mat-ters”: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, unfortunately for Hoover, because he and his agents had such “a difficult time collecting specific evidence of significant communist influ-ence,”6 he frequently had to resort to circular reasoning to jus-tify the amount of money spent on the campaign. FBI Special Agent Arthur Murtagh, who had been assigned to Georgia during the movement, explains some of his director’s particu-larly stretched logic: “[If] you encourage a bus boycott in Montgomery, is that Communist or not? It may cause riots and riots are associated with Communist activity. Discord in the community is an opportunity for the Communists to take over.”7 Thus, Hoover’s first fabrications of King’s ties to communism were not out of antipathy toward King himself, but in the hope of indirectly chipping away at Robert Kennedy, his liberal stance on racial equality, and the civil rights movement itself.
Though Hoover initially targeted King simply because of his prominence in the racial reform effort, he soon sanctioned more aggressive operations against King out of personal ani-mosity. Ridiculously, these brutal attacks were the result of a combination of King’s fairly benign, reasonable criticism of the FBI and easily explainable unreturned phone calls. In 1962, King disparaged the lack of FBI involvement in protecting Al-bany, Georgia, protesters, commenting, “Every time I saw FBI men in Albany, they were with the local police force. . . . If an FBI man agrees with segregation, he can’t honestly and objec-tively investigate.”8 Here, King vocalized African Americans’ concerns that Southern FBI officials flouted their responsibility to uphold civil rights laws and could not be relied upon to pro-tect the activists. The statement was valid and extensively documented by the press; however, the megalomaniacal Hoover equated even the lightest censure of the FBI with scathing personal insult.9
Even worse, when King’s office failed to return an agent’s phone call requesting a meeting to clear up King’s “miscon-ceptions” about the virtuous way the FBI ran things, Hoover believed that he had been the victim of deliberate disrespect which could not go unpunished.10 Hoover himself stated openly to a group of reporters in 1964, “I asked [for a meeting] with Dr. King, but he would not make the appointment, so I have characterized him as the most notorious liar in the coun-try.”11 Here, Hoover inadvertently revealed the long-term grudge he held over the perceived slight to be a primary reason behind his efforts to damage King’s reputation. That is, in committing the completely legal “crimes” of freely speaking out against the FBI and subsequently not meeting with agents to discuss the criticism, King became the target of a baseless smear campaign. As “Hoover had a habit of not fixing the object of criticism but attacking the source,”12 he used these minor, excusable “offenses” to legitimize his means to carry out a personal war.
Conspiracy theorists cite the brutal, illegal ways in which Hoover pursued King as illustrating Hoover’s personal desire for vengeance, as well as lending suspicion to the possibility of his involvement in the assassination. Though his agents had only been able to uncover the most specious connections be-tween King and communists, they had advised congressmen voting on the 1964 civil rights bill that King harbored communist sympathies—charges that were strong enough to force Robert Kennedy to approve of wiretapping King’s home to learn the truth of the allegations. Friedly and Gallen remind us that although Kennedy intended the wiretaps to be used for this sole purpose, Hoover “broadly interpreted their authorization . . . and quickly moved beyond the intent of the Attorney General.” 13 Hoover did this by authorizing the electronic bugging of King’s offices, home, and hotel rooms, giving agents the ability to monitor his private interactions, as well as approving the wiretaps for longer periods of time without the reviews of their usefulness that Kennedy had anticipated.14 In doing so, Hoover showed his enthusiasm for taking increasingly extreme measures, even if they broke the law, in order to damage King’s public credibility. People skeptical of the official version of King’s assassination identify the FBI’s illegal surveillance practices as evidence that Hoover was willing to go to any lengths—perhaps even ordering the killing—to de-stroy King’s influence on American society.
Unsurprisingly, the wiretaps failed to produce substantial proof of King’s communist ties, but they did reveal extramarital activities which Hoover hoped to exploit, despite their irrelev-ance to national security. Again, Hoover’s flagrant disregard for an actual law enforcement objective demonstrates that the FBI director wanted to remove King from the national political scene by any possible means. Long after accusations of communist activity within King’s organizations had proven hol-low, Hoover continued to take advantage of reputa-tion-wrecking information that the surveillance provided. In one especially malicious description, he characterized King as “a ‘tom cat’ with obsessive degenerate sexual urges”15 to poli-ticians, the press, and the public.
Because of his extensive personal, political, and financial investment in the taping and dissemination of King’s affairs to the public, Hoover became perturbed at the inexplicably indif-ferent response of the press. When a conservative Atlanta newspaper refused to report on the affairs, the editor con-tended, “we did not publish a peephole journal . . . a person’s private life is not news.”16 As Friedly and Gallen report, when the media did not find the FBI tapes of King’s dalliances perti-nent to assessing his political agency, Hoover reacted explo-sively: “he hotly criticized The Constitution for supporting Dr. King’s public leadership and binding its readers to his private ‘immorality.’”17 According to those attempting to link Hoover with King’s demise, Hoover’s obsession with King’s private life further supports their contention that his vendetta against King derived from a personal hostility, rather than any real concern over national safety. Indeed, the illegal invasion of King’s privacy, as well as the intense efforts to silence King, directly conflict with the civil liberties his Bureau was assigned to uphold and protect. Hoover feared King’s ability to lead Amer-icans toward a more enlightened view of race which conflicted with his own, a view he hoped to decimate through any means necessary.
When neither communist ties nor public embarrassment fazed King or detracted from his influence, Hoover imple-mented even more drastic measures to discourage the civil rights leader. In one of his most despicable moves, Hoover ordered the anonymous mailing of a package to King’s wife, Coretta, containing “cleaned up” tapes which documented King’s illicit affairs.18 Additionally, an unsigned, threatening letter was included, worded in a way that King and his advisers interpreted to mean that he would suffer public exposure if he did not commit suicide:
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all us Ne-groes. . . . The American public . . . will know you for what you are—an evil, abnormal beast. . . . You are done, King, there is only one thing for you to do. . . . There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal self is bared to the nation.19
Though King refused to allow the intimidation to change his plans, the stress it incurred compelled him to go on a brief hiatus. Capitalizing on King’s weakened psyche, FBI agents called in a false fire alarm at his address.20 Hoover’s in-creasing harassment of King using public funds, despite a complete lack of reasons beyond personal hatred and an ideological split, further aligns with conspiracy theorists’ argu-ments for Hoover later taking a leading role in the assassina-tion. Indeed, the very unsuccessfulness of each of Hoover’s campaigns seemed to cause him to demand even more bla-tantly baseless—as well as more personally injurious—attacks on King. The escalation in the seriousness of the operations as well as the progressive unreasonability of each attack, fuels the fire of conspiracy theorists who identify Hoover’s enmity toward King as the ultimate motive for his murder.
Hoover deserves most of the credit for unforgivably, un-reasonably hounding King, but the subtle support he received from the new Johnson administration served to lend political legitimacy to his unjustifiable actions, as well as implicitly en-couraging him to continue his efforts. Though Hoover’s ac-tions against King delved into the personal arena, Johnson had four primarily political motives for allowing the FBI to go unchecked in its pursuit of King. First, because Robert F. Kennedy was Johnson’s chief political rival following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he openly supported King and the civil rights movement, Johnson wanted to have access to any information that could potentially damage Robert’s chances of stealing the Democratic presidential nomination.21 Secondly, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King began to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War, which directly opposed Johnson’s policies. Besides viewing this as a be-trayal after he had signed into effect the 1964 Civil Rights leg-islation, Johnson did not want such an influential figure ques-tioning one of his administration’s major campaigns.22 Thirdly, by 1967, King and the SCLC were planning the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., an even more outrageous and all-encompassing protest that Johnson believed would undermine America’s authority in the eyes of the international community.23
Each of these points justified in Johnson’s mind the need for continued surveillance of King’s activities; therefore, he avoided questioning the legality of the FBI’s methods. But finally, and perhaps most significantly, Mark Lane and Dick Gregory point out in Code Name “Zorro”: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., that Johnson’s quiet approval of Hoover’s techniques arose out of fear of the director’s abilities to politi-cally ruin him as well: “Hoover regarded Presidents as tran-sients passing through his administration . . . ‘Nobody dared cross him, he had built an impregnable dictatorship.’”24 With Johnson’s tacit support, Hoover could entertain the idea that the executive branch particularly valued his efforts to stop King. Conspiracy theorists argue that since the publication of King’s communist ties and his alleged sexual “degenera-cy”—not to mention their outright harassment of him—had only served to increase King’s determination, Hoover’s increasing desperation easily could have caused him to call for King’s death.
When searching for evidence that the assassination plot against King went beyond the planning of the “lone nut” James Earl Ray, conspiracy theorists find a wealth of information comparing the official story with incompatible personal ac-counts on April 4, 1968. However, the purpose of this essay is not to outline each mismatching detail of the assassination that points to any evidence of a conspiracy, nor is it intended to convince the audience unequivocally that there was, indeed, an FBI plot and subsequent cover-up. Instead, I hope to have explained why people have valid reason to believe that Hoover played a role in the killing: his years of pent-up personal ani-mosity for King, his secured political justification from Johnson, his enthusiasm to break the law for the singular purpose of ruining King, and his inability to successfully silence King through other means. Hoover had rationalized so much of his behavior to exact revenge on King—is it such a great leap from authorizing stalking and harassment, to calling for murder?
The Value of Examining the Assassination
Even if we were to conclusively prove that the FBI did conspire to destroy Martin Luther King’s credibility and, when that did not succeed, his life, most of the people who would have or-chestrated such a plot are dead or aged, and thus, ultimately unpunishable. The Civil Rights Movement has long since waned, and the other leaders who might have incited rage over the government involvement have faded into obscurity. Hoover’s historical legacy has already developed significant tarnish, so connecting him to King’s assassination would likely just be another bullet point on a list of lives Hoover ruined. And finally, the current public, having become jaded by other governmental schemes such as Watergate and Iran-Contra, are unlikely to get whipped into a rage by the uncovering of just another scandal from three-and-a-half decades ago. So, what’s the point of looking into the theory of Hoover’s role in King’s death, or of any conspiracy involving illegal govern-mental activities? Why should we bother searching for the truth?
Ultimately, the importance of continued investigation into the assassination lies not in doling out punishment to those responsible, or even in freeing those wrongly implicated, but in understanding how we can apply the facts to solving our coun-try’s contemporary problems. As O’Reilly explains, “the story of the FBI and black America is part of the larger history of a government that has been at odds, more often than not over the past two hundred years, with its own nonwhite citizens and its own professed values.”25 In examining the FBI’s role in King’s character assassination and its possible role in his actual killing, we can better understand—and agitate for—the federal government’s current responsibility to correct the previous injustices it visited upon a significant portion of its citizenry. With such historical evidence, we can hold the government accountable for its actions.
We like to think that the leaders of our institutions and our most cherished movements continually act in what they perceive to be the best interests of the American people. We hope they transcend personal disputes to make policies that will best serve the country, rather than satisfying their own personal satisfaction, greed, or revenge. Unfortunately, in the study of King’s assassination, we find our needs being used to justify illegal practices that were detrimental to American so-ciety and that only served to exact Hoover’s very personal vendetta. Finding out the extent to which Hoover sin-gle-handedly exploited his position as a public servant to fit his own agenda lends insight into the dangers of unchecked polit-ical power. Seeing how far he would go to accomplish his goals by deliberately misleading the public alerts us to the possibility of others similarly abusing their status and displays for us the necessity of remaining vigilant in assessing the ac-tions of our leaders. In addition, by constantly questioning the official story of the assassination, we demonstrate to the gov-ernment that we are not willing to blindly accept their dubiously simple conclusions when there remains the possibility of a graver, deeper answer. Most importantly, in searching for the truth, we show that we refuse to become jaded and discon-nected from the country’s political system, and therefore will not give up our right to hold the government responsible for its mistakes and self-interested violations of the law.
Considering the level of apathy that most of the American public feels toward the government, exposing what really happened in King’s assassination will not, in reality, bring about all these changes immediately. However, there is always the hope that going public with the truth about past government wrongdoings will shock Americans into realizing that they need to participate in the political process to prevent further injustices. After all, as King himself stated in the speech he made the night before he died, “[Somewhere] I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”26 Understanding, searching for, and publi-cizing the truth in King’s assassination, and in all of American history, allows us to live up to these ideals.
1. Hack, Richard. Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoov-er. Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2004. p. 305.
2. Ibid., p. 306–312.
3. Ibid., p. 313.
4. Friedly, Michael, and David Gallen. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The FBI File. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993. p. 21.
5. Ibid., p. 17.
6. O’Reilly, Kenneth. “Racial Matters”: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960–1972. New York: Free Press, 1989. Arthur Murtagh, p. 44.
7. Lane, Mark, and Dick Gregory. Code Name “Zorro”: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1977. p. 93.
8. King, Martin Luther, in Friedly and Gallen, p. 31.
9. Hack, p. 329.
10. Friedly and Gallen, p. 32–33.
11. Hoover, J. Edgar, in ibid., 43.
12. Friedly and Gallen, p. 33.
13. Ibid., p. 38–39.
14. O’Reilly, p. 145.
15. Ibid., p. 136.
16. Friedly and Gallen, p. 51.
18. Lane and Gregory, p. 86.
19. Anonymous, in Friedly and Gallen, p. 42.
20. Friedly and Gallen, p. 42.
21. Lane and Gregory, p. 62.
23. Ibid., p. 63.
24. Murtagh, in Lane and Gregory, p. 66.
25. O’Reilly, p. 8.
26. King, in Lane and Gregory, p. 44.