FBI

Concerned Citizens Write to J. Edgar Hoover About Martin Luther King

Letters from the FBI's King files

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At a time when Martin Luther King tends to be remembered as an anodyne believer in brotherhood, it's important to recall how dangerous many people considered the civil rights leader when he was alive. One place to hear their voices is the FBI's files on King.

When I say that, I'm not referring to the bureau's own fears of King—though those are certainly on display there as well. I mean the letters the files contain from ordinary Americans sharing their worries with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Here, for example, is one concerned citizen's missive:

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Here is another:

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This letter takes another point of view—the author admires King, is afraid of what will happen if the movement's "leadership slip[s] into more ruthless hands," and thus seems eager to be assured that rumors of King's communist sympathies are untrue:

FBI

Hoover's replies were always noncommittal, stressing that "information contained in the files of the FBI must be maintained as confidential" and "is available for official use only." But the bureau's agents were frank about their feelings when communicating among themselves. Here, for example, is FBI man F.J. Baumgardner in a memo dated December 19, 1963:

FBI

To explore the FBI's King files for yourself, go here. For more on the bureau's surveillance and harassment of King, go here and here.

Bonus link: "If Martin Luther King Were Alive Today, He'd Be Just Like Me."

NEXT: The Fine Print in Holder's New Forfeiture Policy Leaves Room for Continued Abuses

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  1. All these fonts used were not available in the 1960’s. They were invented for Microsoft Word for DOS. Therefore, we can only conclude that Bill Gates was a world class commie-buster.

    Put that in your next book, Walker.

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  3. Interesting how the agent’s letter is so fixated on communism.

    One of the things which always annoyed me, even as a kid, and continues to this day, is the number of people who detest some ideology, yet don’t believe their own propaganda that said ideology is not only detestable, but a failure. Reagan and communism is a perfect example: if he had really believed it was as inept, corrupt, inefficient and just plain incompetent as he often proclaimed, then he should have left it alone to do itself under. If all those trillions he spent on bankrupting the USSR had been left in the civilian economy, and if he had spent his energies on reducing government, think of how much better off we’d be today, and I expect the USSR would have collapsed that much sooner.

    Or the Cuban embargo — if all the Castro haters actually believed their propaganda, the best remedy would be as much contact as possible, as much trade and travel and tourism as they would accept. Castro would no longer have been able to blame the US embargo for all Cuba’s woes, and probably would have collapsed by now.

    1. I agree with your point on Cuba. I disagree regarding President Reagan. The Soviets had quite a few nuclear missiles aimed at us. If he had not hastened the end of the Soviet Union he would have been derelict in his duties.

      1. By that same reasoning, antagonizing them with a program designed to make their ICBMs worthless in a few years is tantamount to treason in that it increased the odds of them using their missiles before they become obsolete.

        His programs only gace the Soviet leaders convenient propaganda to show their subjects how the US was the real danger and only te Soviet leaders could save them. It’s the exact same principle at work with the Cuban embargo.

        1. Standing up to bullies may be seen as anagonizing them. Reagan had the kind of balls the Soviets feared. And respected.

          1. Standing up to bullies is one thing. Deliberately antagnozing them is another.

            If someone tries to steal your lunch money, punch, kick him in the nuts, tell a teacher. But don’t go steal his lunch money or vandalize his locker. Is that how you do things?

            (It would be a lot of fun and very satisfying. But it’s not going to defuse the situation.)

            1. How did Reagan attack the Soviets? Is punching and kicking a bully not antagonizing? But since we were vaporized in WW III I concede your point.

              1. Don’t pretend to be so dense. MAD worked only as long as it was Mutual. Threatening to make it onesided is a threat only to a lunatic, but you are the one, along with Reagan, arguing the Soviets were lunatics.

                I am arguing they were not lunatics, only incompetent, and that the proper response was to let them bluster and fall apart naturally, and that antagonizing them and providing a ready-made bogey man for their internal propaganda was the wrong move.

                1. Except for the part where it worked.

                  1. How do you know it worked? My thesis is that we would have been a helluva a lot better off without his spending, and the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway. I can’t prove speculation.

                    But you have a real event. Show us how it worked.

    2. There’s a flaw in your analysis: something can represent a real danger while, at the same time, not be sustainable. Being a homeless crack addict is not sustainable, but he can still rob and kill you. Waiting until he ODs may not be a viable strategy.

      Many people today don’t realize that Communists really did have a lot to do with the civil rights movement, and not out of altruism. The USSR supported it, directly and indirectly, for their own purposes.

      1. If the USSR’s ICBM really were such a threat, and if their leaders really were irrational enough to use them, how does a research program to make them obsolete sooth their fears or make them less irrational?

        If a homeless crack addict hasn’t attacked yet, is threatening to eliminate his crack source going to calm him down even further?

        1. Carrying a gun on your hip and staring the crack addict down will make him less likely to rob you. Better analogy.

          1. No, Reagan was threatening to render the crack addict helpless, to handcuff him in effect.

            Staring the addict down would be the equivalent of having our own arsenal, which we already had. In fact, I bet our subs made ours better.

      2. This is what bothers me about the meme promulgated by many that the USA brought down the USSR by bankrupting them by making them engage in an expensive arms race. Why’d they have to race on arms? That’d make sense only if the USA were threatening a war of aggression against them.

        And if that were true, then when the USSR was unable to keep up, why didn’t the USA conquer them militarily? Why is Russia or any of the former soviet republics still standing?

        So this line of argument is not credible. I really don’t think the USA had anything to do with it.

        Russia would’ve probably reformed much sooner if either Beria or Kosygin had been allowed to rule, and it was just the shake-out of politics that knocked them out of position, not any broad support for their opposition. It was just bad luck that it took so long that the collapse was so precipitous.

        1. The Soviet Union was teetering for various reasons when Reagan took office. A US re-armament program, plus the threat of “Star Wars” missile defense, plus bleeding them in Afghanistan, plus extra oil-pumping by the Saudis: all Reagan policies/initiatives that finally broke the Soviets. Why shoot nukes at them? Too expensive, in every way.

          I’m not seeing Beria (psycho) or Kosygin (huh?) as reformist types in any positive sense, but maybe you know something I don’t.

  4. Don’t leave me in suspense — was he a communist or not?

    1. He was probably a communist in the “disaffected college student” sense, but not the “agent of the soviet union” sense.

  5. “Dear Mr. Hoover” would make a great advice column.

    1. “I never believed this would happen to me, but I was checking for commies under my bed . . . .”

    2. Dear Mr. Hoover,

      I believe our President was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim. Could you please wiretap him and determine whether this is true?

      Yours in Christ,

      Harold

      1. Based on Ice Try blithering birther nonsense in the comments on Saturday, I had an amusing idea for an “Ask a Birther” advice column, where every answer would be completely wrong and backed up by a variety of legitimate sounding yet completely made up facts.

        1. This basically derived from an observation that listening to a Birther discuss immigration law is basically the right wing politics version of Mornington Crescent.

    3. What kind of high heels would you recommend with a floral dress?

      1. AFAIK the entire “Hoover in a dress” meme comes from one gangster’s moll whose meal ticket was busted by Hoover.

        Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that Hoover was actually part black, and “passing.”

  6. The liberal butt hurt over Selma is delicious. Originally the script had MLK and Johnson working as this civil rights super hero duo. The black woman who directed the film changed the script. She said she didn’t want to make a movie about the white hero saving the poor black man. She wanted to make a movie about MLK and what black people did at Selma. So the movie from what I can tell, I haven’t seen it yet, seems to portray Johnson as the cynical political opportunist he was.

    Of course white liberals’ entire identity and self worth is based on being one of the benevolent white people who helps the poor helpless black people from the evil white conservatives. They can’t handle the idea that black people could have been strong enough to get their own freedom or that one of their cherished icons could have been nothing but a cynical opportunist. And of course white liberals have spent decades using Hollywood to slander their enemies. It is of course different when it happens to them.

    1. Why not a movie about Diontre, the 16 year old who shot and killed the pizza delivery driver, who was planning on taking his 5 year old daughter trick or treating?

        1. Liberals refuse to acknowledge the feral children of their war on poverty. This crime occurred in Columbus, Ohio in October. The driver was killed for $50 and a pizza. So the liberals bitch about whitey, ignoring the vermin they have unleashed on civilization.

          1. You know who else had a problem with “vermin”?

            1. When I saw the first tweet, I thought “Concerned Citizen” was parodying the “WHY AREN’T YOU TALKING ABOUT BLACK-ON-BLACK CRIME?” idiots. But the follow-up tweet makes me think it might be sincere.

              1. Sorry if I can’t laugh off the murder of a working father and husband at the hands of one of Obama’s sons.

                1. “Hey, I’m just asking questions!”

              2. the “WHY AREN’T YOU TALKING ABOUT BLACK-ON-BLACK CRIME?” idiots

                Oh, so that point of view is totally dismissible? Interesting to know. By the way, is that the libertarian position? Or not?

                1. Oh, so that point of view is totally dismissible?

                  Which point of view is that? The view that any discussion of civil rights is an invitation to start spouting non-sequiturs about black-on-black crime? Yes, I find that pretty easy to dismiss.

                  1. Well, sometimes there’s a fuzzy area in between a “non-sequitur” and a “larger perspective.” I think it’s legitimate to respond to the meme of “police are slaughtering young black men” by pointing out that far more young black men are slaughtered by other young black men. That is not to dismiss valid concerns about police, but the issue is often framed as if the “real” problem is the molehill, ignoring the mountain.

    2. Why have Johnson in the movie at all?

      Seems like you could tell an excellent story entirely from within the civil rights movement itself, with the white folks being mostly, if not entirely, offstage.

      1. I think the last time they tried that was with the movie version of The Color Purple. It didn’t go anywhere in the Academy Awards that year.

    3. It certainly seems like Selma is a good movie that is being deemed great because of the subject matter. Far too many reviews are of the form, “a very important and relevant film that is a must-see for all those historically illiterate Americans out there who are ignorant of the basic facts that I just learned from Wikipedia.”

      1. Most of what I have read has been butt hurt about the portrayal of Johnson. That said, it is a good topic for a movie. I am glad to see someone try it, even if the resulting movie is not great.

      2. I always liked Patty better than Selma.

        1. Somebody should do a parody poster with a similar angle on Aunt Selma.

    4. That’s actually some of the criticism Prof. John Loewen offers of high school textbooks in Lies My Teacher Told Me ? they portray the government as leading reforms and the reform movements just happening concurrently rather than the reform movements dragging the government kicking-and-screaming (the civil rights movement is one of the more prominent instances of this he points out).

      1. He has a point there.

  7. Hoover’s replies were always noncommittal, stressing that “information contained in the files of the FBI must be maintained as confidential” and “is available for official use only.”

    By “Hoover’s replies”, do you actually mean Hoover or just a boilerplate response from a secretary at the FBI?

    The idea of the FBI director personally writing back to every crank that mailed him is rather amusing.

    1. Yeah, but I bet he took some time every week having fun reading & writing back to a few of them selected by his staff for laughs. Lots of people who get lots of correspondence enjoy their nut mail.

      1. Couldn’t have been much nuttier than he was himself.

        1. If you look at the equivalent in other countries at the time (i.e. the heads of other secret police agencies), Hoover probably belongs on the “polite and restrained” side of the ledger.

  8. Wait, Rev. King spoke at a *Reformation Sunday* event? I’m so disappointed.

    1. Well, he was a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church…

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  11. I read the second letter is Skwisgaar Skwigelf’s voice. It sounded much better that way.

  12. I’ve enclosed a stamped addressed envelope for your reply.

    “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

    1. I laughed at that line. The sender writes that as if the cost of postage is the thing that would prevent Hoover from replying to his/her letter.

      50 years is a long time, but I can’t even imagine the concept of writing a letter to director of FBI and expecting a response.

      1. People did such things in those days though – they didn’t have email back then.

      2. I’m reminded of the Simpson’s episode based around the idea that Ringo Starr has, since the Beatles broke up, been spending most of his time individually responding to each fan letter he’s ever received and had finally gotten to a letter Marge sent him back in the 60s.

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