Document of the Day: The FBI tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into killing himself

Originally published January 21, 2014 on Feministing.

image via David J. Garrow, ‘The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.’ (New York, 1981), pp. 125‑126)
image via David J. Garrow, ‘The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.’ (New York, 1981), pp. 125‑126)

Though the right and even the mainstream frequently try to co-opt and sugarcoat Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, it is worth remembering just how radical Dr. King was. People familiar with U.S. history may not be surprised that the FBI was obsessed with and spied on King. But even the jaded may be surprised to learn the the FBI actually threatened King and encouraged him to kill himself.

In 1964, the FBI mailed Dr. King a letter as well as, apparently, an audio recording of King in bed with several women. The fake author is an African-American who is disgusted by the leader’s moral shorting comings:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time anywhere near your equal. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God… Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile.

The fake King-hater is so disgusted, in fact, he urges King to kill himself:

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

Now, you may think I–a socialist-summer-camp-attending-Wesleyan-graduating-Feministing-blogger–am being overly dramatic and paranoid in my interpretation of the letter. But this is also the view you will find in a congressional committee report on the FBI and Martin Luther King:

The nature of the Bureau’s campaign against Dr. King is vividly illustrated by one incident. Shortly after Director Hoover’s press conference in November 1964, in which he referred to Dr. King as the country’s “most notorious liar,” (50) a package was mailed to Dr. King. It contained an anonymous diatribe against the civil rights leader and a copy of an electronic surveillance tape, apparently to lend credence to threats of exposure of derogatory personal information made in the letter. (51) The committee was unable to locate the original letter, but an apparently authentic copy was found in the files of Assistant Director Sullivan. The final paragraph clearly implied that suicide would be a suitable course of action for Dr. King.

You can find a photocopy and transcript of the entire letter here. And check out our roundup of links honoring King’s legacy from yesterday

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