When the FBI Tried To Get Martin Luther King, Jr. To Kill Himself After He Won the Nobel Peace Prize

There are many reasons Americans are skeptical of government power. This story is one of them.


National Archives/New York Times

In 2014, historian Beverly Gage published an unredacted version of the notorious November, 1964 letter sent anonymously to Martin Luther King, Jr. before he would travel to Europe to collect his Nobel Peace Prize (above). The letter suggested that King kill himself or else be outed for sexual improprieties. It is widely believed the letter was sent either by FBI operatives or at least sanctioned by the agency, as it relies on information compiled from surveillance conducted by J. Edgar Hoover with the imprimatur of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (whether Lyndon Johnson directly okayed such actions, it's unambiguous that he knew about them and discussed their findings).

Historians had long sought after an unredacted version of "suicide letter," as it is known. It's a disturbing piece of work, to say the least. It poses as a note from a concerned African American. It's failure was complete, as it wasn't read until after King received his Nobel and it was opened by his wife, who turned it over to her husband.

Wikimedia Commons

I wrote about the letter in fall 2014 when The New York Times published it. We live in an age where trust and belief in the government is far lower than it was the FBI was pulling grotesque stunts like this one. Our ambivalence is well-founded, given not just the revelations of the Church Committee in the 1970s but more recent news of just how little the government regards our civil liberties. Martin Luther King's legacy for race relations is rightly well-known and celebrated. We should also remember that his treatment by government carries lessons about the state-sanctioned violation of privacy and dignity.

Though it was sent 50 long years ago, the FBI's so-called suicide letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. is very much of a piece with today's America, where fear of and anger toward the government casts a shadow over everything from web-surfing to starting a business….

Fifty years ago—again, right around the time that the FBI was about to become the subject of a hagiographic hit TV show and trying to goad Martin Luther King, Jr. into killing himself—Richard Hofstadter was denouncing the "paranoid style in American politics." He lamented that, "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds."

But today's lack of trust and confidence in the government doesn't seem all that angry. It's more like we're resigned to the fact that our rulers think little of us—that is, when they think of us at all. In gaining new knowledge about how people in power almost always behave, we are wiser and sadder and, one hopes, much less likely to put up with bullshit from the left, right, or center.

There's a real opportunity to the politicians, the parties, and the causes that dare to embrace real transparency —about how legislation is being crafted, about our surveillance programs at home and abroad—as a core value and something other than a throwaway slogan. But as an unbroken thread of mendacity and mischief binds the present to the past, a future in which government can be trusted seems farther off than ever.

Read the whole piece here.

Reason on Martin Luther King, Jr. here.

This is an updated version of a post that originally ran on January 19, 2015.

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  1. This is a conspiracy piece. Why didn’t Walker do it.

    Anyway, there is already a definitive source on this subject.

    1. This is an updated version of a comment that originally ran on January 19, 2015.

    2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do… http://www.startonlinejob.com

  2. The sad thing is that the people fucking us over really and truly do believe they’re fucking us for our own good. They’re the good guys in their minds, protecting the sheep from the wolves. Don’t they deserve a little mutton to keep their strength up for fighting the good fight?

  3. As is often the case, historical context is essential. Black-and-white statements like “You should always [or never] trust federal law enforcement people” are not helpful. It’s true that the FBI did some terrible things in the past, and revering the G-Men of decades ago would be a mistake.

    However, circumstances have changed. We now live in a time in which former FBI Director Mueller deserves our total support. With any luck, his investigation will be the key to proving #TrumpRussia collusion, and he’ll provide the upcoming Democratic Congressional majority the evidence they need to impeach Drumpf.

    1. One can confidentially say that you are a moron.

      1. This is supposed to be a ‘parody’ commenter. I’ve been slammed for both agreeing and pointing out it is a double-cross parody.
        This is the former commie-kid, having had his hat handed to him too many times, now just posting some bullshit for amusement.
        You still stink, commie kid.

        1. “This new REASON commenter agrees with the official REASON position on immigration?! Must be a parody account!” Airtight logic, there.

          Sorry, I’m a real person. I bathe regularly and exercise infrequently so it’s unlikely I “stink,” and I think the Koch Brothers are cool because they support open borders. How many genuine “commies” praise people with net worths in the tens of billions?

          But go on, keep calling me a parody while you’re copy/pasting alleged Hillary Clinton profanity like a right-wing hack.

          1. “Sorry, I’m a real person. I bathe regularly and exercise infrequently so it’s unlikely I “stink,” ”

            You’re commie-kid, you stink.

        2. I think it’s your old friend < Unpastable >/Liberty =x= Equality. Once a name-changer, always a name-changer.

          AmSoc/RJSP is still using the ALWAYS RIGHT handle AFAIK.

          1. “AmSoc/RJSP is still using the ALWAYS RIGHT handle AFAIK.”

            Haven’t seen it since this new handle showed up, and the “me think thou protest too much” stench is entirely too obnoxious to avoid.
            You STINK, commie kid.

            1. Pretty sure I’ve seen ALWAYS RIGHT in the Brickbat comments two or three times since “OBL” showed up. Whereas I haven’t seen < Unpastable > at all.

              1. “Pretty sure I’ve seen ALWAYS RIGHT in the Brickbat comments two or three times since “OBL” showed up”

                I’ll check that, but I’m also looking at the ‘style’; do you think either Tony or me could post under a sock and not be scoped?
                I’m calling commie-kid.

                1. AmSoc’s AmSocks have usually been straightforward parodies of right-wingers; I’m not sure he’s clever enough to pull off a “double-agent” parody (eg posing as a right-winger who in turn is posing as a “liberaltarian”).

                  Then again, a dozen consecutive years of college ought to have at least helped him a little

            2. Oops!
              The stink is not Telcontar the Wanderer!

              1. “Sevo|1.16.18 @ 1:08AM|#
                The stink is not Telcontar the Wanderer!”

                Now, now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

                1. I assume you don’t exercise. So I can only assume you don’t bath.

                  1. The constant grind of pursuing passing vehicles and attempting to destroy their tires with my atlatl leaves me no time to wash myself in the creek.

  4. Nick, just phonin’ it in, on GOVERNMENT HOLIDAY

  5. Nothing’s private any more. Therefore you can no longer extort with kompromat. Is that a good thing? Takes some getting used to, but overall I think so. “When everyone lives in glass houses, just pop the popcorn and enjoy the show,” as Jesus explained.

    1. Yeah, I’ve noticed the press covering the hags comments:

      “Where is the G-damn f***ing flag? I want the G-damn f***ing flag up every f***ing morning at f***ing sunrise.”
      (From the book Inside The White House by Ronald Kessler, p. 244 – Hillary to the staff at the Arkansas Governor’s mansion on Labor Day, 1991.)

      “You sold out, you mother f***er! You sold out!”
      (From the book Inside by Joseph Califano, p. 213 – Hillary yelling at Democrat lawyer.)

      ‘F**k off! It’s enough that I have to see you ****-kickers every day, I’m not going to talk to you too!! Just do your G*damn job and keep your mouth shut.’
      (From the book American Evita by Christopher Anderson, p. 90 – Hillary to her State Trooper bodyguards after one of them greeted her with “Good Morning.”)

      “You f***ing idiot.”
      (From the book Crossfire p. 84 – Hillary to a State Trooper who was driving her to an event.)

  6. But did any of the politicos swear in a private conversation?

  7. Welp, that’s one way to make us all feel inadequate. What the fuck have you been doing to make the FBI call you a “filthy, abnormal animal” lately?

    1. I don’t know about the FBI, but my isp always includes a handwritten note with that phrase, among others, with the monthly bill.

      1. FBI, ISP, AAA- any 3-letter agency will do.

  8. It is hard to imagine a crueler basis for blackmail than threatening to award the Peace prize to a public figure, as there is nol position so perverse that two winners cannot be found to endorse it.

  9. You see kids, back before we had the Facebook algorithm, we had wives to open our mail for us and determine when we see what correspondences. It’s less efficient, but having at least one person in your life who you trust enough to read all your mail instead of 1,000 friends who cannot communicate with you unless an AI gives them permission might make you less likely to kill yourself.

  10. That truly is a vicious and horrible letter. Those evil right wing republican bastards!!

    It is widely believed the letter was sent either by FBI operatives or at least sanctioned by the agency, as it relies on information compiled from surveillance conducted by J. Edgar Hoover with the imprimatur of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (whether Lyndon Johnson directly okayed such actions, it’s unambiguous that he knew about them and discussed their findings)

    Wait a minute, what?? You mean LBJ, the inventor of Medicare, and sainted liberal Bobby Kennedy, who is buried in a special sanctified grave at Arlington National Cemetery, were partially responsible for this?

  11. “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent Self is bared to the nation.”

    The FBI: Threatening to Doxx you if you don’t kill yourself decades before internet trolls and CoD-playing weebs made it cool.

  12. “King, In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr.”

    I can’t help but think this letter was actually off to a good and proper start. I mean, King was a terrible womanizer and a commie, so it seems fair to refuse to call him “Mr.” or “Reverend”. Then there’s the fact that we know he plagiarized his doctoral thesis, so calling him “Dr” seems undue as well. In fact, when we think about it, St. Martin was not really much of the great guy the news made him out to be. If these things had been publicly accepted in his day, he wouldn’t be St. Martin today.

    1. Because if there’s one thing that America can’t abide, it’s founding figures with complicated ethical histories.

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