Nearly everyone in America is familiar with at least parts of Martin Luther King’s speech given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, most Americans can probably recite or at least recognize some paraphrased version of the following:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
King’s prophecy of that day becoming “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our Nation” is surely true in the hearts of many people. However, in the eyes of William C. Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence dvision, the speech potentially made King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation.”
Later that year in October, Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General and brother to President John F. Kennedy, would authorize “unlimited electronic surveillance of King and the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] in Atlanta” by the FBI, according to Tim Weiner in his book Enemies: A History of the FBI. In the end, the FBI would end up placing eight wiretaps and sixteen bugs on King.
What is perhaps the most recognized rallying cry for freedom in the history of the United States placed its orator under the itense bondange of government surveillance for the rest of his life.
The quest to surveil King had begun more than a year prior on March 16, 1962 when RFK authorized the FBI to tap the work phone line of Stanely Levison, a close friend and support to King. Given an inch, the FBI took a mile and also planted a microphone in Levison’s office on their own authority. In October 1962, RFK would also authorize a tap on Levison’s home phone.
J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, was convinced that the communist Soviet government was in the ear of Levison who in turn was influencing King.
David J. Garrow, a King biographer and historian, writes in a 2002 Atlantic article that the suspicion wasn’t entirely unfounded. Jack Childs, an estranged member of the Communist Party USA with knowledge of the party’s finances of the years spanning 1945 to 1948, told the FBI that Levison and his twin brother Roy owned a Ford dealership that contributed “well over $10,000 a year to the CPUSA.” This revelation came to the FBI in May 1952 and the FBI had been keeping close tabs on Levison since then.
By the time he was introduced to King in 1956, Levison’s support of CPUSA was already drifting and it was believed that he cut ties completely in early 1957. Levison soon became a close adviser assisting with the organizing of the SCLC, negotiating the deal for King’s book Stride Towards Freedom, among other things all while refusing to charge King for his services.
Not only were both the evidence gathered against Levison and his ties to CPUSA fleeting at best, but in March of 1963, seven months before the surveillance on King was ordered, FBI informant Childs produced what Garrow calls “ironclad evidence that Levison had explicitly severed whatever remaining ties he … still had with the CPUSA.” Hoover and the FBI chose to keep this information secret from both JFK, RFK, and therefore the public.
Both Kennedy brothers approached King in June 1963 urging him to sever ties with Levison. Levison himself, knowing the damage the misconstrued public image of their relationship could cause the movement and King’s reputation, insisted on the same. King, fearful of losing the value that Levison brought, decided to position New York attorney Clarence B. Jones as an intermediary between the two.
And so it was, King and Levison ceased to speak directly to each other and Jones served as a relay. When the FBI became aware of the arrangement, they petitioned RFK for a wiretap on Jones’s home and office telephones.
The relationship between the two men made the FBI nervous, and the extent taken to hide it likely made them even more suspicious. Those feelings apparently reached a head that hot summer day in August 1963 when King was transformed from an activist to the face of the civil rights movement in the U.S.
The Bureau’s documents indicate the intelligence produced from King’s surveillance also yielded weak ties to CPUSA or the Soviet Union. But those concerns all but disappeared as they found reason to turn their attention to his personal life. As Beverly Gage, Yale historian, puts it in the newly-released documentary MLK/FBI:
“The FBI found out all sorts of things about King and very quickly, while they still had some concern with the communist question, it begins to become something that’s much more about King’s personal life, about him as a man, about his sex life, about his family, about his confidants, and about, really, his private life.”
The FBI first learned of King’s extramarital affairs when he stayed at Jones’s house in New York in August of 1963. According to Garrow, also in the MLK/FBI documentary, soon after they tap King’s home phone “the FBI begins convening meetings to discuss ‘How can we further exploit all of these extramarital recordings?’” That is “transparently why” William Sullivan decided to bug King using microphones everywhere he stayed.
King’s activism and notoriety caused him to travel far and wide. The FBI would work with the staff at hotels he was staying in to place secret microphones before his arrival. Agents would often stay in the room next door to listen to the audio in real time as well as document King’s visitors.
King’s sex life particularly interested the FBI as it played into a prevalent racist stereotrype that Black men were hyper-sexual. This made it easier to view him as the immoral human being they believed he was. Despite all the evidence that painted him as a man just like any other, they were determined to destroy him and thus leaked proof of King’s sexual affairs to the media and other clergy.
Despite the leaks, King rose in influence. Announcement soon came that he was set to become the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover, frustrated that the Bureau’s efforts to discredit King had failed, called an impromptu press conference of only women reporters and famously called King “the most notorious liar in the country.”
The gathering of all this collection of audio culminated in what may have been a last ditch effort by the FBI to discredit King. A package was delivered to King on November 21, 1964 containing a letter and an audio tape. In 2014, Beverly Gage said the letter was “rife with typos and misspellings and sprinkled with attempts at emending them. Clearly, some effort went into perfecting the tone, that of a disappointed admirer.”
The tape contained recordings of King’s sexual encounters with other women. After calling King evil, immoral, filthy, and many other insults due to those affairs, the letter’s concluding paragraph began with “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.” King and his associates took this to mean to kill himself.
The letter was the first time his wife, Coretta, learned of her husband’s sexual affairs. It caused a significant amount of emotional distress for both of them. But, to the FBI’s displeasure, King continued to organize.
According to Garrow in his book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, the FBI had attempted to place human informants in King’s life as early as mid-1963. Specifically, they had tried several times over to recruit a Black individual within SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. Success was not seen until late-1965 with young James A. Harrison, who had joined SCLC as an accountant one year prior.
Upon hearing something he thought was useful to the FBI, Harrison would phone an agent, arrange a meeting location, and drive with that agent around Atlanta giving him the information. Harrison was paid to do this.
As time went on, Harrison’s stipend grew and the meeting arrangements became more secure. The majority of the intelligence from Harrison concerned the organization’s finances and organizing plans. Very little of it had to do with King specifically.
In June 1966 Harrison became the only source of information on the inside when the bugs and the wiretaps inside SCLC were stopped, making him even more valuable to the FBI.
In addition to Harrison, in 2010, it was revealed by the Memphis Commercial Appeal that Ernest Withers, the famed civil rights photographer who accompanied King to events from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the march in Memphis hours before King’s death, was also an FBI informant since 1958.
As the New York Times Magazine puts it, Withers “took requests” from the FBI, once taking photos of every protester at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration and sending prints directly to the Bureau. NPR reports that he would take 3 cameras to every event: “One roll of film went to the white press, another to the black press, and the last, he kept.” The last roll was used to print the requested pictures for the FBI, adding to their pool of surveillance tactics.
King’s political profile grew after breaking his 18 month silence on the Vietnam War and criticizing his own country’s role in the conflict. Not only did this stoke public belief that he was a communist, but it also dealt a great blow to what had otherwise been an allyship with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Around the same time, the SCLC announced its new Poor People’s Campaign along with plans for another march on Washington in late-1968. Trying to capitalize on the public’s political distaste for King and also hoping to thwart another event as influential as the first march in the capital city, the FBI continued to surveil King’s every move.
In April 1968, King and the SCLC travelled to Memphis to support Black sanitary public works employees, who had been striking since March 12 in demand of higher wages and better working conditions. They felt the cause aligned nicely with the Poor People’s Campaign.
King was killed by a sniper while standing on the balcony outside his motel room days after arriving. The FBI watched and listened to the murder happen and the aftermath unfold.
While he lived the last years of his life without any privacy whatsoever, more is known about Martin Luther King Jr. than most historical figures. The manuscripts and audio of the FBI’s surveillance in their entirety remain sealed until at least 2027. However, thanks to the efforts of journalists, historians, attorneys, activists, and politicians, we know much of that content that was discussed by the FBI in internal memos. Most historians agree that little more will likely be learned once the tapes are unsealed.
King’s body was laid to rest in his hometown of Atlanta under a headstone displaying the final words from his “I Have a Dream” speech. And so, the bondage of surveillance King endured that nearly broke his family and threatened to undermine his life’s very mission, ended with the same words with which it started: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at last.”