The Sordid History of the FBI's Harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., at the Direction of J. Edgar Hoover — and the Pleasure of Lyndon B. Johnson

Amidst all the brouhaha related to the allegedly “false” portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in the movie Selma caused by the LBJ Library’s director, Mark Updegrove, it is noteworthy to call to the public’s attention how the “LBJ defenders” have attempted to absolve President Johnson from involvement with that sordid chapter in American history.  Updegrove’s article was quickly followed by one from Joseph Califano, printed in the Washington Post, that even claimed the Selma march was Lyndon Johnson’s idea.  All of it was quite opposite of the truth, and no amount of “LBJ revisionism” will make it fact.

From the time that Martin Luther King Jr.’s name came to national prominence in December, 1955, J. Edgar Hoover began monitoring his activities, even as King and his closest associates mistakenly presumed, according to Andrew Young, that “we thought of the FBI as our friends, the only hope we had.”[1]   By 1959, Hoover had decided, on his own and without higher authorization, to order his agents to burglarize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices to obtain personal information about Dr. King and install telephone wire taps as well as “bugs” to record non-telephonic conversations and assorted other The Man Who Killed Ken... Roger Stone Best Price: $3.97 Buy New $7.40 (as of 01:20 EDT - Details) noises.  This brazenly illegal activity, of which there were many other cases in addition to King’s, continued into the Kennedy administration.  By 1961, the freedom rides that had begun that year revealed which side the FBI was really on, and it was not King’s.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy had attempted to bring the wiretapping under control, however by that time the SCLC and King had begun fighting back, culminating in a special report attacking the FBI on January 8, 1962.  By then, the FBI had obtained evidence that two people in King’s entourage, Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell, had ties to the American Communist Party, making it difficult for the Kennedys to cooperate with King until that issue was dealt with or, conversely, for them to end the surveillance under the continuing pressure wielded by Hoover.[2]

During the five years of Hoover’s sleuthing before JFK was sworn in, Hoover had become obsessed with destroying King, and in 1961 he called on his Special Agents in Charge (SACs) of his field offices to cull their files for all the “subversive” information they could gather and send it to the “SOG” (as he called himself, the “Seat of Government”).  Hoover’s assistant, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, was put in charge of compiling this assortment of innuendo, half-truths and whole lies, sprinkled with sufficient “facts” to make it salable.[3]  By October, 1963, six weeks before JFK’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy, under pressure from Hoover, LBJ: The Mastermind of... Phillip F. Nelson Best Price: $3.15 Buy New $11.41 (as of 05:35 EDT - Details) approved the FBI wiretap of King for a 30 day period ending on November 21, 1963.   His tenuous relationship with Hoover had, at that point in time, been seriously compromised by his need to solicit the FBI’s help in protecting his brother JFK’s own secrets regarding his involvement with a stunning  woman named Ellen Rometsch , who was suspected of being an East German Spy,who had been procured on his behalf by none other than Bobby Baker, all as choreographed by Lyndon B. Johnson. RFK needed Hoover’s help to get her out of the country lest her liaison with JFK leak .This required RFK to delicately “deal with” not just one “devil” but three, simultaneously:  Hoover, Johnson and Baker.  He had no choice but to approve those temporary wiretaps but he fully expected to review, and possibly end, that surveillance, at the end of the 30 days, but his brother’s assassination ended his control over that process; there was no review until 1965 because Hoover ignored RFK’s condition and the “King wiretapping went on and on,”[4] to Lyndon Johnson’s personal pleasure.

After JFK’s assassination, RFK became ineffectual in his position, cut off from above by Johnson and from below by Hoover, both of whom liked to play the recordings of King’s sexual trysts for their own amusement or at cocktail parties for others as well. LBJ played them for long time crony, a long-time Texas pal of Johnson’s, then Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, who described it in his memoir.  There are numerous reports about how these recordings were delivered to President Johnson, who took great delight in listening to them, especially King’s sexual exploits.  One such account was a 2011 article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which stated:  “He listened to the tapes that even had the noises of the bedsprings,” Time correspondent Hugh Sidey reported in 1975. Johnson would say to anyone having nice things to say LBJ: From Mastermind t... Phillip F. Nelson Best Price: $3.06 Buy New $11.43 (as of 01:20 EDT - Details) about MLK, “Goddammit, if you could only hear what that hypocritical preacher does sexually.”[5]  Lyndon Johnson’s description of King was the same in 1967 as it had been three years earlier, despite how they had “collaborated” on the passage of the legislation in between. This is because Johnson used King to help accomplish his own personal goals in 1964-65, yet, despite Johnson’s own legendary womanizing, he had the temerity to call Dr. King “hypocritical.”

Robert Sherrill, the author of The Accidental President, writing contemporaneously in 1967, said that Bill Moyers “expressly approved” circulating within the executive branch a secret FBI report intended to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King.[6] An entire section of this report was devoted to the details of King’s personal life and sexuality preferences, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report in 1976.  Moyers admitted under questioning that he understood that the FBI reports dealt with personal information, that he never questioned the propriety of it, that he never considered it inappropriate, and that neither did anyone else in the White House. As the New York Times later reported, “Johnson found gossip about other men’s weaknesses a delicious hiatus from work.”[7]   It is interesting that a decade later, Moyers admitted that some of the taping the FBI did on behalf of Johnson was excessive, but it took even longer for him to admit that they were “constitutional violations.”[8] He has never been held to account for his own actions, nor was Johnson ever held to account for his abuse of illegal bugs and wiretapping, as eventually happened to Richard Nixon under much less egregious circumstances. Death of a King: The R... Tavis Smiley Best Price: $1.09 Buy New $4.44 (as of 04:25 EDT - Details)

In the three years following the assassination, though King used public outrage to pressure Johnson into pushing the 1965 Voting rights Act. Everything changed after King’s speech of April 4, 1967. at Riverside Church in New York City at which he came out strongly against the Vietnam War and Johnson’s methods in creating the war. In his book Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Hampton Sides summarized the situation that King had found himself in six months before his assassination.  By 1967, the thirty-eight-year-old King had been working almost non stop for twelve years, while getting little exercise and smoking and drinking in excess, he had become extremely stressed; he had been receiving death threats and his marriage was teetering toward failure.

With his opposition to the Vietnam War King became a moral force LBJ had to deal with. His outspoken criticisms of the Vietnam War caused Lyndon Johnson to turn against him completely:

Certainly he was no longer welcome at the White House. Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson had made history together—collaborating on the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—but now Johnson wouldn’t even talk to King. The president viewed him as a traitor, once calling him, ‘that nigger preacher…who think’s he’s running the country”9

An Act of State: The E... William F. Pepper Best Price: $4.48 Buy New $17.09 (as of 02:05 EDT - Details) On June 20, 1997, in a New York Times article headlined “Son of Dr. King Asserts L.B.J. Role in Plot” by Kevin Sack, the King family admitted that they had suspected all along that President Lyndon Baines Johnson was behind the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King:

Three months ago, Dexter Scott King . . . asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson must have been part of a military and governmental conspiracy to kill Dr. King. “Based on the evidence that I’ve been shown, I would think that it would be very difficult for something of that magnitude tooccur on his watch and he [LBJ] not be privy to it,’’ Mr. King said on the ABC News program Turning Point.

Another of Johnson’s sycophants, his attorney general, Ramsey Clark, in 1968 had a vocal malfunction when he declared there was no conspiracy involved, even before the “investigation” was complete, not to mention the trial. In this case, AG Clark was speaking on behalf of President Johnson in pronouncing the accused guilty.

The efforts of LBJ’s defenders, then as now, have served to hide Johnson’s deceit and nefarious maneuvers, thus his most secret and criminal actions throughout his presidency.  The time has come for those crimes The Assassinations: Pr... James DiEugenio Best Price: $28.00 Buy New $29.95 (as of 03:15 EDT - Details) and treasons to be brought out of the closets to which they have been hidden for five decades and exposed to the light of truth.  The nation has been seriously harmed, and the public’s right to know has been denied, for far too long.  The public’s trust in the federal government is at an all-time low as a direct result of the hidden lies and the buried crimes.  The LBJ “legend” can no longer stand the “truth” test and it is therefore imperative that it must be corrected, and the sooner the better.

[1] Gentry, Curt, J. Edgar Hoover – The Man and the Secrets.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1991,  p. 500

[2] Ibid., p. 501

[3] Ibid., p. 505

[4] Theoharis, Athan, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1991, p. 99.

[5] Meroney, John. “What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.”

The Atlantic, November 11, 2011

[6] Sherrill, Robert, The Accidental President, New York: Pyramid Publication, Inc. 1968, p. 42

[7] Lasky, Victor, It Didn’t Start with Watergate, New York: The Dial Press, 1977, pp. 196-198

[8] Ibid.