Did FBI Try to Drive Martin Luther King to Suicide? New Documentary Reveals Hoover's Demonizing Tactics

Sam Pollard's new documentary MLK/FBI portraits J Edgar Hoover's relentless pursuit of civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King during the '60s

There have been some wild conspiracy theories involving J Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the '60s. But according to declassified documents that were uploaded to the U.S. National Archives' website last year, Hoover and his trusted agents had gone to great lengths to harass and spy on people.

One of the notable people of that time was Dr Martin Luther King Jr, America's one of the greatest civil rights activists. King was Hoover's target for his activism and his association with a communist party member. With growing suspicion and racist agenda, Hoover and his men attempted to drive Dr King to suicide.

Dr King had a troubled relationship with the FBI until his assassination in 1968. During the time, Hoover had used all his means to keep surveillance on the civil rights icon. Hoover tried to prove that Dr King was engaging in "degenerate" sexual activities in private despite being a married man. While according to Dr King's close associates he had extramarital affairs, Hoover tried to malign his name by framing him of rape.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr
J Edgar Hoover's FBI saw Dr Martin Luther King Jr as a threat to the nation Pixabay

Most Dangerous Man

During the troubled period, the FBI believed Dr King was the most dangerous African-American who could be a threat to the nation. The FBI took a rigid stance on him following the Washington march in August 1963. As Dr King tried to unite a nation that was going through a tumultuous time due to Vietnam War and civil rights movements through his "I have a dream" speech, the FBI led by a conservative Hoover saw him as a threat.

Following the Washington march, FBI's head of domestic intelligence, William C Sullivan sent an urgent memo, saying the bureau should do everything in its power to destroy the Black messiah. "We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation," Sullivan wrote

New Documentary

Director Sam Pollard in his new documentary MLK/FBI, has examined the documents to explain Hoover and FBI's motives. The documentary, which is now playing at the DOC NYC festival, interviewed former FBI agents, Dr King's associates and historians to understand the underlying fear of Hoover and White Americans of that time.

Instead of just relaying the FBI's negative views on Dr King, Pollard tried to portrait a bigger picture behind the fear. The most important factor was communism. The U.S. leaders waged war on communism that led to their humiliation in Vietnam but before that communism was the common enemy irrespective of party lines.

J Edgar Hoover
J Edgar Hoover, then-FBI Director resorted to different tactics to demonize Dr Martin Luther King Wikimedia Commons

As Hoover continued his counterintelligence program, wiretapping Dr King's associates, he found that the latter was in touch with Stanley Levison, a former member of the Communist Party USA. President John F Kennedy was afraid of the potential scenario and advised Dr King to break ties with Levison. Although Dr King promised he would, wiretapping revealed that he had continued his association with Levison after that, Buzzfeed News reported.

Wiretapping Dr King

That was enough for Hoover to convince then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to wiretap Dr King. While Booby Kennedy thought it was a normal surveillance program, Hoover and Sullivan had other ideas. Instead of monitoring his friends who could potentially have communist influence, the duo focused on exposing Dr King's personal life. FBI paid informants to know about Dr King's whereabouts and next destination. Before he had arrived, his hotel room would be bugged while another agent would next door trying to listen to who he was speaking to.

Clarence Jones, Dr King's friend, an attorney and speechwriter, told him about his suspicion. But Dr King refused to believe that FBI was targeting him. "Clarence, don't you know the FBI's got better and more important things to do than wiretap our phones?" Jones said.

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However, soon Dr King received an envelope without any return address that contained a tape with him having sex with women in hotels. The envelope also contained a note from a so-called ex-admirer calling the activist a "fraud, sexually psychotic and a beast". "I know what you've done," read the note which was supposedly written by Sullivan himself.

Dr King was given a 34-day deadline to stop all civil rights activities. Realizing the implication, Dr King wanted to kill himself. Hoover, on the other hand, tried to supply information about Dr King's alleged affairs to the press and church but no one took an interest.

The next attempt was to frame Dr King of rape. During Poor People's campaign in 1968, Sullivan went through the notes of agents who were listening to Dr King from next door. He found that a Baptist minister allegedly raped a female parishioner at a DC hotel in 1964. That was something he was looking for. But there were problems with the handwritten note. The incident was not in the original report, the woman didn't complain about it and the why agents didn't take any action to stop the heinous crime.

While the transcripts and reports of that remain sealed until February 2027, the documentary tried to portrait a prejudice against African-Americans at the time. But half a century later, demonizing of the community still exists in the society and Dr King was not the only target.