Thursday, 24 August 2023 08:09

Hoover vs. King: The ARRB Documents

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Jim DiEugenio re-examines the battle between J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King before and after Kennedy's assassination. With new documents he shows that Hoover interceded overseas in order to smear King and limit his interaction with foreign dignitaries.

Most of us know just how bizarre and extensive J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with the civil rights movement--and Martin Luther King Jr in particular--was. For example, in 1958, after King was stabbed during a New York City book signing, a man named Benjamin Davis donated blood for him. The FBI noted that Davis was a member of the Communist Party. (Martin Luther King Jr.: The FBI File, edited by Michael Friedly and David Gallen, p. 21) The Bureau also took note that King’s name appeared on a petition for clemency for a man who was imprisoned because of his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (ibid)

As both Hoover and the upper level of the Bureau knew, King was not a communist in his ideology, and was never a member of that party. But Hoover was determined to use the tried-and-true tactic of guilt by association to smear King:

Though nothing has come to the Bureau’s attention to indicate the Reverend Martin Luther King is a Communist Party member, he has been linked with numerous leftist and communist front organizations and is currently active in racial and segregation matters. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 22)

As many observers have commented, the specter of the pitifully weak Communist Party was being used to attack liberal causes, like integration. And if this information had to be gained by breaking and entering, the FBI would do it with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices. (Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and his Secrets, p. 501) The first noted occurrence of this was in 1959. And, in a much later Justice Department review, it was revealed that the purpose was to gain information on King. It was also later uncovered that the FBI had been tapping King’s phone in Atlanta since the late fifties. (ibid)

The conflict between King and Hoover became more direct when King wrote an article for the February 4, 1961 issue of The Nation. King argued that the FBI should be used more to combat violations of civil rights in the south. He further added that one reason it might not be was that there were so few agents of color. At the bottom of a memo on King dated May 22, 1961, this sentence appears, “King has not been investigated by the FBI.” The Director underlined that sentence and added in his usual scrawl, “Why not?” King later criticized the FBI in public for employing too many agents who were native southerners. In factual terms, that statement was not accurate. Most of the agents--seventy per cent in the south-- came from above the Mason-Dixon line. (Gentry, p. 499)

On January 8, 1962 the SCLC issued a report continuing this attack on the FBI. Most writers believe that it was this report that began Hoover’s continual assailing of King to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Hoover’s main charge was that two of King’s supporters in the SCLC were either former or present communist agents. These were Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell. In fact, Hoover had already spread these rumors—which turned out to be pretty much baseless—to certain politicians on Capitol Hill. (Gentry, p 503)

When first informed of this information about Levison in 1962, through Kennedy aides John Siegenthaler and Harris Wofford, King “refused to act against the man who had been his friend and advisor for the past six years.” (Friedly and Gallen, p. 24). Levison was a wealthy attorney who gave King free legal advice and was a strong fund raiser. O’Dell worked directly for the SCLC in their New York City, and later their Atlanta, and Albany, Georgia offices. Whatever associations either man had with the CP had ended back in the fifties. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 25, 27). In fact, Levison later declared that, unlike what Hoover said about him, he was never any kind of Russian agent. He was not even a CP member. But he said he understood the worries of both Bobby and Jack Kennedy.

They were so committed to our movement, they couldn’t possibly risk what could have been a terrible political scandal. When I realized how hard Hoover was pressing them and how simultaneously they were giving Martin such essential support, I didn’t feel any enmity about their attitude toward me. (Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, p. 376)

And this was a real threat. By the fall of 1962 the FBI was penning internal memos about exposing O’Dell and his CP background to various newspapers. In fact, the Long Island Star-Journal, and a few other papers, did print the story about a high-level CP member who infiltrated the SCLC New York office. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 29)


Apparently, King was sensitive to the charges. In November of 1962, with O’Dell’s consent, King announced his resignation while the SCLC did an inquiry. But King said he knew nothing about his background. King also—not altogether honestly-- denied the role O’Dell had reportedly played in the SCLC up to that time. He then added that “it is also a firm policy that no person of known Communist affiliation can serve on SCLC’s staff, executive board or its membership at large.” (Friedly and Gallen, pp. 29-30) This temporary resignation later become permanent. (David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 275)

King was much more reluctant about Levison. But Levison later said that he induced King to make a direct contact break: “The movement needed the Kennedys too much.” But King managed to stay in contact with Levison through New York attorney Clarence Jones. (Ibid, Garrow.)

Hoover now assigned Cartha DeLoach to contact King for the purpose of correcting some of his critical statements about the Bureau. Which DeLoach did try and do. But it is clear that King made up excuses to avoid talking to him. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 32)

On January 15, 1963 DeLoach distributed a memo within the Bureau. It essentially said that King was avoiding him since he does not wish to be alerted to the facts. He then said that King had used “deceit, lies and treachery as propaganda to further his own causes….” He made reference to Levison who he called “a hidden member of the Communist Party in New York”. As some have commented, thus King may have triggered a whole new level of conflict between himself and Hoover.

The FBI had already broken into Levison’s home in the spring of 1962. But now, in 1963, the FBI portrayed Levison as a top level functionary who was actually part of the Russian intelligence network. (Schlesinger, p. 372) This was at a time when the White House was backing King and the civil rights movement like no prior administration. In June of 1963, after a White House meeting with King and other civil rights leaders, President Kennedy took a stroll in the Rose Garden with King. (About which King observed that Hoover must be bugging JFK also.)

During this private talk, Kennedy told King he was under strong surveillance. He asked him to remove O’Dell and Levison. He said their mutual enemies were already denouncing the March on Washington as a communist stunt. Because this administration had now tied its fate to a civil rights bill and also the upcoming demonstration, if King’s enemies shot him down, then his administration would fall with it. When King asked to see the evidence about Levison, Kennedy told him Burke Marshall—the administration specialist on civil rights-- would show it to King’s assistant Andrew Young. (Schlesinger, pp. 372-73)

Marshall met with Young at a courthouse in New Orleans. But Young remained unconvinced since all Marshall did was repeat what Deloach and Hoover were saying. (Schlesinger, p. 373) Consequently, King remained skeptical. He and Young thought this was just FBI intimidation. But as mentioned above, Levison gallantly solved the problem, and Jones provided a nexus point to avoid halting communications.

President Kennedy was evidently satisfied with the conclusion. Feeling he had parried Hoover effectively he made a rather startling announcement on July 17, 1963. He became the first white politician in Washington to back the August 28th demonstration. He then pointedly added that there was no evidence to show that any civil rights leaders were communists, “or that the demonstrations were communist inspired.” (Schlesinger, p. 373). Robert Kennedy then wrote a letter to 2 senators saying the same thing:

It is natural and inevitable that Communists have made efforts to infiltrate the civil rights groups and to exploit the current racial situation. In view of the real injustices that exist and the resentment against them, these efforts have been remarkably unsuccessful. (Church Committee Report, Book 3, p. 100)

This was a direct affront to Hoover. And so the FBI said there was no way RFK could back such a definite claim. The only way to be sure was to place a tap on King’s phone. Robert Kennedy had repeatedly rejected this. But Hoover then reported that he had information that King was still communicating with alleged KGB agent Levison by telephone. (Schlesinger, p. 375) In October, the Attorney General gave in and authorized a trial tap for 30 days. If nothing came up, that would be the end of it.

We all know what happened in November. (Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and King, p. 217) As Kennedy’s first civil rights advisor Harris Wofford adds, all the evidence indicates—as mentioned above-- the FBI had already been tapping King’s phone anyway. They just wanted a cover for it.


After JFK’s death, Hoover ripped out Bobby Kennedy’s private line into his office. Even though there was never any evidence of communist affiliation, Hoover kept the tap on King’s home phone until the middle of 1965. The FBI then added taps on 21 microphone settings in various King hotel and motel rooms. (Schlesinger, p. 375). One can write with justification that, once Hoover knew he did not have to deal with Robert Kennedy, the dam broke. As author Kenneth O’Reilly wrote, by the summer of 1964 the Bureau was not just focused on King, but had expanded its operations and surveillance to all civil rights leaders, indeed to all civil rights related events. (Racial Matters, p. 140)

Whereas Robert Kennedy had demanded that Hoover recall a memo that the FBI had prepared attacking King, this defiance of the Director did not succeed under successors Nicholas Katzenbach or Ramsey Clark. (Schlesinger, pp. 376-77) One probable reason being that President Lyndon Johnson had a long and warm friendship with the Director.

Hoover now set up a special desk at the Internal Security section with two supervisors to coordinate what he termed Communist Influence Racial Matters inquiries (CIRM). And he instructed them to use the rubric “communist” in the broadest view. (O’Reilly, p. 140). But the problem was the FBI struck a dry well with Levison and his alleged communist angle. Even though they burglarized Levison’s home at least 29 times between 1954 and 1964. (O’Reilly, p. 141)

In fact, King took his issue with this to the public in 1964. During a press conference on May 10, 1964 he began to echo what the Kennedys had said in public, but without their private fears: “It is time for this question of communist infiltration t be buried all over the nation.” Fellow activist James Farmer then added, “Communism is based on a denial of human freedom. It’s tough enough being black without being black and red at the same time.” On July 23rd in Jackson, Mississippi King said he was:

…sick and tired of people saying this movement has been infiltrated by communists and communist sympathizers…There are as many communists in this freedom movement as there are eskimos in Florida.

Therefore, Hoover now switched to character assassination. During a November 1964 meeting with a group of women reporters, Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country”. (O’Reilly, p. 142) Even though DeLoach was there and tried to get Hoover to take that comment off the record, Hoover would not.

In March of 1964, the FBI became cognizant that Marquette University was going to honor King with an honorary degree. The Bureau sent agents to tell them about all the derogatory information they had on him. The same thing happened at Springfield College. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 42) Around the end of the year, the FBI recruited its first informant in the SCLC, an accountant named James Harrison. (Garrow, p. 468)

When Time magazine named King its Man of the Year at the end of 1963, Hoover wrote on a 12/29/63 UPI press release, “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one.” (O’Reilly. P. 136) But Hoover really went bonkers when it was announced that King, at age 35, would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964 in Oslo—along with a cash award of almost $55,000. The honor was “for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population.”


That award would be formally bestowed at the end of 1964. Between the Time magazine honor and the Nobel announcement in the fall King made a speech in San Francisco. It was quite frank and indicated King had had it with the communist infiltration ploy:

It would be encouraging to us if Mr. Hoover and the FBI would be as diligent in apprehending those responsible for bombing churches and killing little children as they are in seeing our alleged communist infiltration in the civil rights moment. (FBI memo of 4/23/64)

In a memo from Alan Belmont to William Sullivan, it was revealed that Division Five was working on material which was being pushed and will be given to Hoover for his consideration (Belmont to Sullivan 4/23/64, with 2 pages denied in full) Hoover had Division Five Chief William Sullivan and DeLoach distribute tapes and transcripts of what they alleged to be King’s philandering in various hotel rooms. (O’Reilly, pp. 137-38). Division Five had the FBI lab make a composite tape of alleged highlights of various hotel bugs and taps. DeLoach offered a copy of a transcript to Ben Bradlee, who was then the Washington bureau supervisor for Newsweek. Bradlee turned down the offer. When Burke Marshall heard of this through Bradlee, he warned President Johnson about it. But Johnson did something rather weird. He reacted “by warning the FBI about Bradlee. He was unreliable, the president said, and was telling the story all over Washington.” (Ibid, p. 144) The same offer was made to the Atlanta Constitution editor, Eugene Patterson. Who also refused to listen. (Friedly and Gallen, p. 51)

Marshall then warned White House advisor Bill Moyers that Hoover was trying to smear King through the media. Moyers informed the FBI White House liaison about it. Hoover now did something really bizarre. He accused Marshall of being a liar. In fact, Hoover ordered one of his aides to call Marshall and tell him just that. (Wofford, p. 220). What is notable about this is that it is before Johnson’s escalations of the Vietnam War in early 1965. Meaning the King/Johnson relationship was going to get even worse.

This all culminated with the notorious letter that Hoover had Sullivan compose in November of 1964. Some have written that the implicit threat was that King had no way out except to take his own life. But FBI defenders, and Sullivan himself, replied that it was really meant to get King to step aside as leader of the SCLC. It partly reads as follows:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes…King, like all frauds, your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader…But you are done…No person can overcome facts. The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestant, Catholic and Jews, will know you for what you are…So will others who have backed you. You are done…there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what this is. (O’Reilly, p. 144)

The FBI enclosed the compilation tape with the letter. The package was mailed from Miami to the Atlanta office of the SCLC. This was shortly before King was to fly to Oslo to accept the Nobel. Around the same time, November 24th, Hoover made a strong speech against King. This time indirectly accusing the SCLC of being run by “communists and moral degenerates.” (ibid)

King later noted, after reading the letter and hearing the tape, it was clearly from the FBI. And this was a war in which, “They are out to break me.” (Friedly and Gallen, p. 49)


But it was not just in America that the FBI declared war on King. The ARRB declassified papers dealing with this overseas battle. Researcher Gary Majewski has sent me many of them. The FBI was determined for King’s Nobel journey to Scandinavia to have little or no impact on the leaders of Europe. These documents deal with cables and airtels from the FBI to intelligence centers in Europe, especially England. They were designed to poison any planned meetings between King and European public officials. What is so startling about these documents is that, as bad as they are, they are still heavily redacted: whole pages have been denied. But from what was left unredacted, some of the tale can be revealed.

It appears that somehow, some way, the FBI found out just how King would journey to Oslo. Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the March on Washington, was acting as an ad hoc advance man. The Bureau seemed to have had a spy in Rustin’s camp. The FBI knew when Rustin would be departing and they knew who he would be contacting to arrange meetings with luminaries in Europe. (FBI Cablegram of 11/10/64) One of these people appears to be Labor Party member Peggy Duff. Rustin apparently wanted Duff to arrange for a meeting with a higher up—his identity is redacted. The Bureau’s objective was to try and get to these higher ups in advance in order to smear King as

…surrounded by numerous advisors having present or former communist connections. He has maintained an association with and received guidance and counsel from secret Communist Party USA members, notwithstanding advice to King about their communist backgrounds. (ibid)

This information, plus a smear of Rustin, was to be forwarded to MI 5-- roughly the equivalent of the FBI in England. The Bureau actually wanted this info to be sent to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The excisions are clearly noted as being in connection “with efforts being made by King to see British Prime Minister Harold Wilson when King passes through London enroute to Oslo…”

Amazingly, the information did get to Wilson though MI 5 official Roger Hollis. Hollis then furnished the FBI with data about Rustin’s arrival, where he would be staying, and that MI 5 would cover Rustin’s activities and report to FBI. (Airtel of 11/13/64) The Bureau also made plans to brief the American ambassadors in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo about the same matters. This was being done to discourage any attempt to make King a guest of honor. (FBI Memo of 11/13/64 and memo of 12/10/64). This effort ended up being at least partly effective. The American ambassador in Stockholm had planned on meeting King at the airport. He now decided to send a representative.

In another FBI memo of 11/24/64 the State Department is enlisted to briefing the USIA on the smears of King, including information about King’s alleged immoral conduct. When Belmont heard the USIA was in agreement, he went ahead and approved the FBI reports and sent memos to that body.

How an FBI Director was allowed to interfere or even become involved with foreign affairs is, to say the least, a very problematic question. How he was allowed to send salacious material to representatives of intelligence agencies, and to ambassadors, is a little disgusting. And that this whole story has yet to be fully revealed in 2023 is appalling. There is an inter-agency meeting of 12/8/75 between the FBI and the Justice Department on King that is nine pages long. There is no ARRB cover sheet on it. And it is almost completely whited out.

We all know how this ended. King was shot in Memphis in April of 1968. When that news was broadcast, the agents in the FBI office shouted, “They got Zorro! They finally got the SOB!” When further word came that King was dead, “One agent literally jumped up and down with joy.” (Gentry, p. 606)

What Hoover was trying to do with his war against King was to make him so radioactive as to split him off from other civil rights leaders. (FBI Memo from DeLoach to Mohr, 11/27/64) Prior to that, as Harris Wofford has pointed out, what Hoover was also trying to do was drive a wedge between King and Bobby Kennedy.

Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of 1968. Early in the year, Hoover’s close friend Clyde Tolson had wished for this to happen. (Gentry, p. 606) But that was not enough. During Kennedy’s televised funeral, Ramsey Clark was drawn aside by an FBI agent. The FBI knew that Scotland Yard had captured alleged King assassin James Earl Ray the night before, but they had refused to hold the story. In fact, DeLoach had told an FBI asset the night before about it. Therefore, the media was distracted by the apprehension of Ray during the RFK funeral. (Ibid, p. 607) How could anyone trust any FBI inquiry into either man’s death?

Hoover’s mania later spread to all black nationalist movements. Urged on and abetted by Richard Nixon’s manipulation of white backlash, he approved COINTELPRO operations against the Black Panthers. By 1969 Hoover was investigating every chapter of the Black Panther Party and over a thousand members, and also those Hoover considered sympathizers. (O’Reilly, p. 298) Many commentators hold Hoover responsible for the decimation of that group e.g., the framing of Panther Geronimo Pratt and the death of Chicago leader Fred Hampton. (See, O’Reilly, Chapter 9)

It is a sorry story, this tale of FBI perfidy and its war on a civil rights leader. Hopefully, one day, it will be able to be seen in its entirety, without being expurgated.

Do we need an ARRB on the King case?

Last modified on Friday, 25 August 2023 14:39
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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