Civil Liberties

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

Letters from the FBI's King files


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:


Here is another:


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:


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:


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."