Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech on the National Mall in August 1963 quickly made him one of the most famous people in American history. It also made him a lot of enemies.
Two days after the speech, FBI domestic intelligence chief William Sullivan concluded that, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” From then until the day King died, director J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to aggressively and illegally spy on King with the express purpose of rooting out something that would discredit him.
The surveillance didn’t prove King was a traitor, but it did work out pretty well for Hoover in the form of recordings of King’s extramarital affairs. Around a year after his speech on the National Mall, King received a package containing incriminating copies of these recordings and a harshly-worded letter from the FBI encouraging him to commit suicide. While the existence of the letter has been public for years, the uncensored version was only recently unearthed and published by Yale Historian Beverly Gage on Tuesday. It’s pretty horrible.
As Gage writes in The New York Times, the letter makes no fewer than six uses of the word “evil,” among other epithets labeling King an “evil, abnormal beast,” a “colossal fraud,” and a “dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile.” The full text is below, as well as a comparison to the redacted version previously available to the public courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
As Gage recounts, King read the package as a demand that he kill himself. He also almost immediately reached the correct conclusion that the FBI and Hoover in particular were stepping up their campaign against him. But only now do we know the exact language the FBI used to blackmail King, which is vicious and intimidating in spite of its overwrought prose:
“No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself. Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. You will find yourself in all your dirt, filth, evil, and moronic talk exposed on the record for all time …
“Listen to yourself, you filthy, abnormal animal. You are on the record.”
Taken as a whole, the letter also reflects the FBI’s attempts to fracture black solidarity by pitting elements of the African-American community against one another. It’s not a coincidence the author claims to be one of “us Negroes.” Now well known, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program preyed on black movements with particular ferocity. The Electronic Frontier Foundation documents that FBI sent similar anonymous letters to Black Panther Party members in various cities. There they met with somewhat more success, sparking violence between Panthers and street gangs that left four members of the organization dead.
Years later in 1968, a directive from Hoover made clear the two goals of COINTELPRO were to “prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups” in order to stop a “true black revolution” and prevent the rise of a black “messiah.” The FBI spread rumors that black leader Stokely Carmichael was a spy, forcing him to flee the country temporarily. According to the Guardian, the federal government funneled approximately $100 million (around $550 million as of 2008) through the program to destroy “black, indigenous and left-wing movements in America, and their potential future leadership.” Around that time, King was killed by white supremacist James Earl Ray while planning a national occupation of D.C. called the Poor People’s Campaign.
The original scandal Hoover sought to reveal through his sordid and illegal operations was that King was a Communist. He wasn’t, of course, but by conflating King’s civil rights and anti-poverty activism with active subversion against the government Hoover hoped to deal a crushing blow against burgeoning 1960s liberalism. Under Hoover, the FBI was often used as a cudgel for the interests of right-wing reactionaries, or as he would put it, the “respectable” white community. Gage writes that having failed to find the Commie connection, Hoover was nonetheless “genuinely shocked” to find evidence of King’s affairs. So the letter above was Plan B.
Decades later, conservatives are trying another tactic to neutralize King’s radical legacy, rebranding him as “fundamentally conservative.” The far-right Heritage Foundation, for example, promotes King’s supposed beliefs in “the power and necessity of faith-based association and self-government based on absolute truth and moral law.” Others, like the dubiously qualified “conservative historian” Peter Schramm, have selectively quoted King to make it appear as though he might oppose affirmative action or government anti-poverty programs. Reagan used King’s “I have a dream” speech in his own speech opposing affirmative action.
Here’s the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who continually espouses the idea that King’s ideals were “rooted in the foundational principles of the republic” and brushes off his advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised:
Today, conservatives, who were too often on the wrong side of civil rights in 1963, are champions of race neutrality, while King’s self-appointed heirs are more inclined to champion the ideas that never spoke to the hearts of all Americans.
(Just so long as they don’t actually need to show up at a rally honoring him or anything.)
In reality, King understood that racial equality would require an upheaval of the status quo, which is why he drew (at the time) radical connections between the war in Vietnam and poverty at home in a speech given a year to the day before his death:
… we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
I hate playing the were he alive today game, but I imagine that the King who spoke powerfully of the relationship between economic subjugation and racial oppression would recognize today’s conservative “race neutrality” as the cynical ploy it is. King’s vision of an equal society included a then-unprecedented “economic bill of rights,” such as a $30 billion federal anti-poverty package committing the government to pursue full employment, institute a guaranteed national income and build more low-income housing. Hoover’s obsessive focus on discrediting and harassing King was also intended to stop these proposals from becoming reality. The FBI’s war on King was part of a larger war on the idea of a progressive society.
Here in 2014, conservatives have mostly given up trying to slander King himself. But they still fear brewing racial sentiments and the ominous spectre of socialism, and they still bitterly rail against the so-called entitlement spending and big government programs King saw as necessary to defeat racial, economic and legal inequality. Four decades later, the nasty piece of history King got in the mail is finally out there for all to see in full. It would be a shame to forget the forces that rallied against him then are still very strong today.