A very long functional post on the flaws in this post at The Atlantic, “What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.”, by John Meroney. The crux of the piece is that the film’s portrayal of Hoover is even-handed, but embodies the liberal prejudices of Hollywood, with the focus on the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Hoover and Martin Luther King, which is treated as entirely false and inaccurate.
I would very much like to see this movie, though I have not done so at this point. I cannot speak directly of how the movie portrays cited incidents; however, I believe almost every point made by the writer in describing the relationship between King and Hoover, as well as various points of Hoover’s character, is blatantly wrong.
A number of Mr. Meroney’s points are made without cited basis; my refutations are quotes, from either J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and The Secrets by Curt Gentry, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch. Mr. Meroney may be hostile to Gentry’s work, but it is heavily sourced, often by original participants like assistant director William Sullivan, while Mr. Meroney’s citation of Branch’s own work implies that he considers the writer’s work credible. However, Branch’s work almost entirely contradicts his piece.
The quotes are sometimes lengthy to make clear that this is not a partial or selective section of the work to make the refutation.
The writer on communist efforts which may have influenced public perceptions of Hoover:
When it comes to the real J. Edgar Hoover, separating fact from conjecture is challenging because he had so many enemies. Post-Cold War Soviet Union archives reveal that the KGB employed a decades-long systematic campaign of character assassination and disinformation against him. One wonders how much of that may have been inadvertently mainlined into the more sordid accounts of Hoover “history,” perhaps even in this picture. Some dramatic license is permitted for films “based on a true story,” but there’s one important plot line of the picture that’s flat-out fictional and not open to guesswork: Hoover’s tumultuous relationship with King.
The linked work on the Soviet Union archives, Sword and the Shield Archive, stated that there were three aspects of Hoover’s character that were attacked: connections with extremists through forged John Birch Society letters; a forged letter from an actual FBI associate in the passport office which implied in-depth surveillance of citizens; and attempts to hurt Hoover through implications on his sexuality via forged letters from Ku Klux Klan members complaining that Hoover promoted FBI employees based on his attraction to them.
I don’t consider any of these attempts effective, or relevant to the relationship between King and Hoover. The accusation in the forged surveillance charge falls far short of what actually took place under Hoover’s watch.
Following is a lengthy excerpt from Sword and the Shield on these three attempts:
Like THE CIA, the FBI was inevitably a major target of KGB active measures. Until the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, many of these measures were personally directed against the Bureau’s long-serving, aging and irascible director. Service A employed three simple and sometimes crude techniques. The first was to portray Hoover as in league with extremists such as the ultra right-wing John Birch Society, whose founder regarded even the former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Service A had acquired both some of the society’s stationery and samples of its leaders’ signatures from its California headquarters to assist it in its forgeries. In November 1965 it fabricated a letter of good wishes from Hoover to the leader of the John Birch Society, reminding him that the FBI funds put at his disposal would enable the society to open several more branches.
A second, more sophisticated form of active measures concerned alleged FBI abuses of civil rights. Operation SPIRT was designed to demonstrate that the head of the Passport Office in the State Department, Frances Knight, was a secret FBI agent whose loyalty was to Hoover rather than to then Secretary of State. In 1967 Service A forged a letter from Ms. Knight to Hoover and arranged for it to be sent to the celebrated columnist Drew Pearson, who published it in the Washington Post on August 4. The fabricated letter reported that a situation of “extreme urgency” had arisen as a result of press enquiries about an alleged FBI request to her for information on Professor H. Stuart Hughes, a Harvard critic of American policy in Vietnam:
I am seriously afraid that this may indicate preparations for a sustained press campaign against us. We have already discussed the attitude of the Secretary of State towards the long-established practice of the department making inquiries at the request of the FBI…Forgive me if I sound alarmist, but I am quite certain from what I have heard that a principle of vital importance is at stake which affects the whole conduct of the government and, in particular, the effectiveness of the Bureau.
Ms. Knight told Hoover she was unwilling to commit too much to paper and suggested an urgent meeting with him. Knight and Hoover both dismissed the letter as a forgery, but the fact that neither denied the FBI’s contacts with the Passport Office persuaded the KGB that at least some of its mud had stuck.
A third line of attack deployed by Service A against Hoover was to accuse him of being a homosexual. The truth about Hoover’s probably severely repressed sexuality is unlikely ever to be known. Later, much-publicized claims that he was a gay cross-dresser whose wardrobe included a red dress and boa, which made him look like “an old flapper,” and a black dress, “very fluffy, with flounces, and lace stockings,” which he wore with a black curly wig, rest on little more than the discredited testimony of a convicted perjurer, Susan Rosenstiel, who claimed to have seen Hoover so attired.
The later commercial success, admittedly in a more prurient period, of fanciful stories of Hoover at gay transvestite parties suggests that in fabricating stories of his homosexual affairs in the late 1960s Service A had hit upon a potentially promising
active measures theme. DeLoach was later depressed to discover how readily such stories were accepted as “undeniable truth:”
“Tell us about Hoover and Tolson,” people would say.
“Was it obvious?”
“Did everyone know what was going on?”
As sometimes happened, however, Service A spoiled a plausible falsehood by surrounding it with improbable amounts of conspiracy theory. It sent anonymous letters, intended to appear to come from the Ku Klux Klan, to the editors of leading newspapers, accusing Hoover of personally selecting for promotion in the FBI homosexuals from whom he expected sexual favors. Not content with turning the FBI into “a den of faggots,” Hoover had also allegedly been engaged for several decades in a larger gay conspiracy to staff the CIA and the State Department with homosexuals. The national security of the United States, claimed the letters, was now seriously at risk. Service A’s belief that major newspapers would take seriously nonsense of this kind, especially emanating from the Ku Klux Klan, was graphic evidence of the limitations in its understanding of American society. The letters had, predictably, no observable effect.
The article’s first charge is that Hoover did not initiate surveillance on King. He did so only at the behest of the Kennedys.
Moviegoers who see J. Edgar will leave the theater with the impression that Hoover drove the surveillance of the young civil rights leader – ordering agents to bug his hotel room and wiretap his telephone calls – because he considered the minister a threat to national security. According to the movie, Hoover persuades his reluctant boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to sign off on such procedures. But records from Freedom of Information Act disclosures and the pioneering research of civil rights historian David J. Garrow tell a far different, and more insightful, story.
After discussing efforts to surveil King associates Stanley David Levison and Jack O’Dell, as well as King’s own intimate moments,
J. Edgar leads us to believe that all of this voyeurism came at the instigation of Hoover. But the date of October 10, 1963, offers a different narrative: that was when Attorney General Robert Kennedy, angered by King’s recalcitrance to comply with the president’s demand to oust Levison, ordered Hoover to have bureau agents wiretap King’s telephones, including the one in the preacher’s Atlanta home.
Hoover began surveillance of King, the SCLC, and the civil rights movement long before this. Even when the movement and black americans were targeted, such as during the violence against the freedom riders, surveillance fell not on possible perpetrators, but always on those fighting the oppression.
J. Edgar Hoover, as early as 1957, had ordered his agents to begin monitoring the activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
By May  [King] was dramatically orating before 35,000 demonstrators at a rally in Washington, D.C., where he shouted over and over again, “Give us the ballot!”
Immediately, Hoover opened a file under “racial matters.” The SCLC had announced a campaign to register eligible black voters throughout the South, a move that the FBI director felt warranted covert surveillance. King’s file would be stuffed with “all pertinent information.”
In January 1959, entirely on his own and without officially opening a security investigation, Hoover ordered FBI agents to burglarize the SCLC offices. It was the first of twenty known break-ins between that date and January 1964. According to a Justice Department study after King’s death, “Some of these entries had as one purpose, among others, the obtaining of information about Dr. King.”
It would be standard operating procedure – and more to the point, considering the unlikelihood that damaging materials were lying around the premises – for the Bureau to take these opportunities to install bugs. Certainly, wiretaps were installed. Former Assistant Director Sullivan later admitted that the FBI “had been tapping King’s telephone in Atlanta since the late 1950s.”
This was accompanied by utter lassitude when dealing with violence against civil rights workers. From Gentry’s Secrets, on what took place during the freedom rides:
Eugene “Bull” Connor had a highly inventive plan.
As public safety director for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, he was in charge of the police department, but an unprecedented event that was imminent had convinced him that unprecedented measures were required, and he sought the aid of the local Ku Klux Klan.
On May 14, just days away, a Greyhound bus carrying a small group of “freedom riders,” blacks and whites who were participating in the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) series of sit-ins throughout the old South, would arrive in Birmingham.
Assured of Connor’s cooperation, the Klan arranged to have sixty men ready to assault the men and women who were traveling together across state lines on a public bus, as was legal under the laws of interstate commerce. The forces would be divided into squads of ten men each, who would arm themselves with baseball bats, clubs, and pipes. Klan members were warned not to bring along a pistol, unless they had a license for it.
All of this information was sent to J. Edgar Hoover on May 12, two days before the scheduled arrival of the buses in Birmingham, in a telex from the Birmingham SAC [SAC = Special Agent in Charge]. He did nothing.
In the bloodbth of May 14, one squad leader stood out in the memory of horrified victims and witnesses. He savagely attacked a black man who was waiting at the bus station for his fiancee to arrive, then restrained the man while other KKKers pummeled him. This leader also beat a newspaper photographer unconscious and ran after a second newsman who had photographed the incident, seizing and smashing his camera.
Gary Thomas Rowe, Hoover’s chief paid informer workin undercover in the KKK, was never charged with crimes for his Sunday spree, nor was he ever to be restrained by any of his five “handlers” over the next few years*. The FBI director had known beforehand that the Klan had planned the ambush and that his man Rowe intended to carry his special bat.
But the director’s prior information about the horrific incident went even deeper. On May 5, nearly two weeks earlier, the Birmingham SAC Thomas Jenkins had reported that a policeman in Connor’s intelligence branch, Sergeant Tom Cook, was a pipeline to the KKK. One day before that, Hoover had received the tentative schedule of the freedom rides from his plant in the CORE project. The FBI informant Simeon Booker, Washington bureau chief for black-oriented magazines like Ebony and Jet, wanted the Bureau to know that he might be facing danger and need protection.
He was whistling in the wind.
Jenkins, who had known about Cook’s Klan connections as early as April 24, telephoned the sergeant on May 14 to tell him that the bus was on the road from nearby Anniston.
* In 1980 the Justice Department prepared a classified 302-page report on Gary Thomas Rowe and his underground activities on behalf of the FBI. According to JD investigators:
- Rowe was no mere informant. Klan members stated he had veto power over any violent activity contemplated by the Eastview 13 Klavern.
- Rowe twice failed lie detector tests in which he denied participating in the group’s bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four young black girls were killed in the blast.
- Although he admitted having been in the car with three other Klansmen when a shot was fired that killed the civil rights worker Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Rowe was not charged with participation in the murder but was instead used as the government;s principal witness against the other men. He later failed a lie detector test when asked whether, as his compatriots charged, he had fired the fatal bullet.
- From 1960 to 1965 Rowe was paid at least $22,000 by the FBI and given help in starting a new life under an assumed name in California and later, Georgia.
All this, and more was known to Hoover. The FBI director also knew that Rowe had bragged of having killed an unidentified black man in 1963, and that he had been involved in the beating of several Negroes at a Birmingham public park. Yet no action was ever taken against Rowe. “As long as he was providing good intelligence,” the Justice Department report concluded, “the Birmingham field office appeared willing to overlook Rowe’s own involvement.”
Hoover’s actions here were not driven by simple anti-communism, but in large part by race; bluntly, racism, pure and simple. From a cabinet meeting in 1956, as described in Gentry’s Secrets:
The date was March 9, 1956, and the subject civil rights. [Attorney General Herbert Brownell] wanted to ask Congress for a new civil rights law (there hadn’t been one since Reconstruction), for the establishment of an independent Civil Rights Commission, for granting the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department full status as division, and for the power to bring suits in federal courts to enforce voting rights.
His subordinate, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had accompanied Brownell to the meeting at the request of the president and the Cabinet, pulled the rug right out from under him.
“The South is in a state of explosive resentment over what they consider an unfair portrayal of their way of life, and what they consider intermeddling,” Hoover warned his rapt audience. And for this he blamed the 1954 and 1956 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decisions. Behind the tension over “mixed education,” he cautioned, “stalks the specter of racial intermarriage.” The NAACP and the other civil rights groups were exacerbating the already tense situation by preaching “racial hatred,” he claimed. Morover, they had been targeted for infiltration by the Communist party.* On the other hand, the White Citizens Councils which had recently sprung up throughout the South to oppose desegregation included among their members “bankers, lawyers, doctors, state legislators and industrialists…some of the leading citizens of the South.” It was clear with which group Hoover chose to take his stand. As for the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI director airily dismissed it as “pretty much defunct.” Accompanied as always with charts and graphs, Hoover used one of the latter to show that the number of lynchings was down; hence there was certainly no need for legislation giving the FBI formal responsibility for such cases.
Speaking of a forthcoming NAACP conference, he closed on a purely political note: “The Communist Party plans to use this conference to embarrass the administration and Dixiecrats who have supported it, by forcing the administration to take a stand on civil rights legislation with the present Congress. The party hopes through a rift to affect the 1956 elections.”
Stanford Ungar has noted, “The director’s report, bigoted and narrow-minded as it might seem in retrospect, had a powerful impact. It was probably a major factor in President Eisenhower’s decision not to push for the Brownell civil rights program.”
* An initial finding that the NAACP was opposed to communism did not keep the FBI from investigating the organization for another twenty-five years.
Let’s go back to The Atlantic article, and return to what is said about King advisers Levison and O’Dell:
In the summer of 1963, Hoover wasn’t the only one preoccupied with King. So was the Kennedy White House. That was because one of King’s closest advisers, Stanley David Levison, and another man who ran one of King’s offices, Jack O’Dell, were secret Communist Party operatives. For at least a year, the president and his attorney general brother had been receiving classified data, transcripts of wiretapped telephone calls (which they sanctioned), and intelligence reports confirming the men’s affiliation with the Soviet-controlled Party. This information also chronicled the work they were then doing for King.
Branch, Parting the Waters, on the Levison episode:
In December, [Robert] Kennedy told a British journalist that the U.S. Communist Party “couldn’t be more feeble and less of a threat, and besides its membership consists largely of FBI agents.” In sharp but indirect rebuttal, Hoover told a House committee the next month that the U.S. Communist Party was “a Trojan Horse of rigidly disciplined fanatics unalterably committed to bring this free nation under the yoke of international communism.” Hoover substantiated this ringing alarm by disclosing confidentially…that a New York lawyer named Stanley Levison was both a secret member of the Communist Party, subject to orders from the Kremlin, and a guiding adviser to Martin Luther King.
[February 2] [Assistant Attorney General] Byron White called in the FBI liaison officer specifically to discuss Hoover’s January 8 warning about Levison.
[White's request] for the Levison file raised thorny problems. For one thing, nearly all the intelligence information about Levison’s Communist allegiance was at least five years old, and it came from two brothers, Jack and Morris Childs, who had infiltrated the party as FBI informants after having been purged in the factional turmoil of the late 1940s. Worse the Levison record would show that the FBI itself twie had attempted to recruit Levison since then, which would make it difficult to explain why the Bureau now considered him so sinister. Finally, while the Bureau could show that Levison and King were close friends in the civil rights movement, there was no evidence as yet to show that either one of them followed the orders or even the wishes of the American Communist Party, let alone the Kremlin. In short, the January 8 memo had exaggerated the subversive linkages in order to get a message through to Kennedy, and Byron White’s sudden embrace of the alarm now called for the Bureau to show its hand. This potential embarassment rose instantly to J. Edgar Hoover for decision. “King is no good any way,” he scrawled on the memo outlining the problem.
By this, his first written assessment of King, Hoover marked him for FBI hostility in advance of any investigation…The important signal to get across was that King wa tainted by his association with Levison. As to White’s request for evidence, Hoover transformed weakness into strength: the information could not be revealed, he ordered, because it was too important. The Levison file must remain secret in all its details.
It is this bunko non-existent evidence that prompts the Attorney General to approve the first of many wiretaps, in March of 1962:
[First week of March] Hoover formally requested Attorney General Kennedy’s authorization to place wiretaps in the office of Stanley Levison. Kennedy approved.
Branch’s Waters, on O’Dell as a communist:
On October 26, a New Orleans newspaper published a story flatly declaring that Jack O’Dell was a “Communist who has infiltrated to the top administrative post in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” Citing “a highly authouritative source,” the unsigned article identified O’Dell as a “concealed member” of the party’s national committee who for years had been “carrying out his Communist party assignments” in civil rights work.
King already knew that O’Dell had been expelled from the National Maritime Union, and that he had lost his insurance job in Montgomery after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected Communist. He wanted to make sure there was nothing deeper within O’Dell’s past, nothing violent or sinister. Wearily, O’Dell told King that he was not a party member, as the article alleged, much less a member of the party’s national committee, but he knew people who were.
This point, (again, Branch’s Waters), is crucial:
From the beginning, Hoover showed practically no interest in proving the substance of the case against Levison or O’Dell – in documenting their alleged submission to the discipline of Soviet agents, or in gathering legal evidence that they were engaged in treasonous, violent, or clearly malevolent conspiracies against the United States.
Throughout, King is told that Levison and O’Dell are high level communists in Soviet control. He constantly asks for proof of the allegations; he receives none. Waters:
[King] kept asking for proof, saying that these terrible spy terms did not ring true of the men he had known so well, that he could not very well throw them out of the movement on unsupported allegations. Everybody he knew in the movement had been called a Communist for years, himself included.
King’s commentary on the meeting with President Kennedy, where Kennedy pressured him to get rid of Levison and O’Dell:
King laughed as he told [his associates] how the three Administration officials [the Kennedys, and head of Justice's Civil Rights Division, Burke Marshall] had tried to impress him with all sorts of spooky code names. Whenever he had asked for proof – evidence that Levison and O’Dell were under Communist control, or that they wanted too make him do something he didn’t want to do – the Kennedys had dodged and danced around with more fancy words. This amused King – these big white folks acted like country preachers promising to pay back some money. What it really meant, King accurately guessed, was that J. Edgar Hoover was hoarding whatever evidence there was, if there was any.
Back to the article:
J. Edgar also leaves one to conclude that Hoover’s disapproval of King was all-encompassing. At one point in the picture, the supposedly repressed Hoover comes unhinged, fulminating against King, and – in a risible fictionalization – he even crafts a poison-pen letter to the minister pretending that he’s black. “You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all us Negroes,” dictates the movie’s Hoover. “White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal.”
The filmmakers, of course, want viewers to recognize that Hoover is ironically describing himself. The truth is, Hoover never sent such a letter to King.
Whether Hoover was personally involved in drafting such a letter is unknown; that a letter along with tapes of recorded surveillance, very close to the one described, was sent to King is undisputed. From Secrets:
“Once it became apparent that King, who held himself up publicly and to his associates as a ‘man of God’ and as a minister, once it became clear through the coverage of his activities that he was not, at least his sexual conduct was such that he was breaking down his picture as a ‘man of God,’ the question came up whether Coretta King should be advised….It seemed proper to advise her of what was going on.” So [Associate Director Alan Belmont] stated to the author, shortly before he died. [Assistant Director William Sullivan] put it much more simply. Asked, “What possible justification could you have had for sending a man’s wife that kind of material?” Sullivan told the author, “He was breaking his marriage vows.”
The plan was to mail the package to the SCLC office in King’s name, because the FBI coverage had revealed that Mrs. King opened his mail for him when he was on the road.*
“Mail it from a southern state,” Hoover advised. An unwitting agent whom Sullivan trusted dropped it into a mailbox in Tampa.
* Some accounts of this incident have missed the point, taking the apologists’ line that the FBI intended that only King see the contents of the package. On the contrary, it knew that he would be out of the office and that Coretta would be at her post. It doesn’t take a Jesuit to see that, in such circumstances, a package addressed to Martin Luther King Jr., is in effect and intent a package intended for Coretta Scott King.
This letter is referred to as the “suicide package” because the letter calling for his suicide, accompanied by surveillance recording implied that King, already under heavy pressure from all manner of circumstances, should take the easy way out and kill himself – especially since this might avoid embarrassment from further surveillance being released.
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow follows up on what happened after the package was sent.
Coretta found and opened a thin box containing a reel of tape that had been received at SCLC headquarters a month earlier. Staff members had assumed it was a recording of one of King’s speeches and put it aside for Coretta, who collected them, but upon playing it, she realized that this was not a speech. On some of teh tape was her husband’s voice, but his remarks certainly had not been delivered to any public audience. Furthermore, the box also contained an anonymous threatening letter:
In view of your low grade…I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII….
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God….Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.
King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like [Roy Wilkins, head of CORE] a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done. Your “honorary” degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat you are done.
No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself….I repeat – no person can argue successfully against facts. You are finished….Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness….King you are done.
The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.
King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what this is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent slef is bared to the nation.
King and his aides had little doubt about the origin of the package: J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The material on the tape – dirty jokes and bawdy remarks King had made a year earlier at Washington’s Willard Hotel, plus the sounds of people engaging in sex – had obviously been acquired by bugging King’s hotel rooms.
The FBI’s frightening threat sent King into an even worse state of mind. He became so nervous and upset that he could not sleep, and was certain that the Bureau would do anything to ruin him. “They are out to break me,” he told one close friend over a wiretapped phone line. “They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”
Neither his relatives nor his aides pressed him about the contents of the tape, but their reserve could not relieve the severe emotional tension King was experiencing.
The Atlantic article:
As author Taylor Branch reveals in his history of the civil rights movement, during the “freedom summer” of 1964, Hoover received information indicating that it was likely white supremacists would kill Martin Luther King at any moment. Hoover authorized FBI agents to accompany the unaware King on a flight through the South to secure his protection – that’s just what an FBI man would do. Because most people now seem to learn history from the movies, it’s unfortunate that a rather telling scene like that wasn’t in this script.
From Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, on how Hoover’s animosity towards King was so great, King wasn’t informed of assassination threats for a while:
When King appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “Man of the Year”…Hoover circulated at headquarters his own reaction: “They had to dig deep in the garbage for this one.” Animosity toward King gained free rein in FBI policy up to the restraining edge of “embarrassment to the Bureau,” as was evident a few days later when a crude letter of multiple assassination threats reached headquarters from St. Petersburg, Florida…(text of death threat against NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Lyndon Johnson, and Bobby Kennedy)…In the midst of the standard full-scale trace alert on possible danger to President Johnson, the FBI extended notification to the lesser targets mentioned – except for King. In his newfound assertiveness after the Kennedy assassination, Director Hoover suspended official courtesies that smacked of FBI solicitude for King’s welfare and declared him specifically unfit to receive death warnings.
The halting of this practice and the accompaniment of FBI agents that Mr. Meroney celebrates only took place after the intercession of Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy. Mr. Meroney cites Branch’s Parting the Waters as the source of his information on the “freedom summer” of 1964. This would be a tricky attribution, since the subtitle of Waters is America in the King Years 1954-63, my emphasis. The relevant passage on the security assignment can be found in Branch’s Pillar of Fire, subtitle, America in the King Years 1963-65. The quote also makes clear that the FBI was utterly untethered from the Attorney General’s command, doing as it wished under surveillance.
At midday on Tuesday, July 21, Attorney General Kennedy called the White House with notice that King was on his way to address the evening’s mass meeting in Greenwood. He said Mississippi authourities, while refusing to supply police escort, recommended that King not try to spend the night in the Delta. “It’s a ticklish problem,” Kennedy told President Johnson, “because if he gets killed, it creates all kinds of problems.” He laughed nervously. “Uh, just being dead, but also a lot of other kind of problems.”
The President suggested that Kennedy have the FBI guard King, which produced an awkward silence. “Well, it’s difficult…uh they’re not, uh, I suppose,” Kennedy sputtered, then blurted out his most galling complication: “I have no dealings with the FBI anymore.”
When Johnson volunteered to arrange FBI protection himself, Kennedy fought tense chuckles over the absurd mix of treachery, helplessness, and polite manners. “I hate to ask you to be dealing with somebody that’s working over in the Department of Justice,” he said. “That’s not a very satisfactory situation.”
The President introduced “another problem” without reference to the Attorney General, which would have been inherently inflammatory to Hoover, saying he had word that Martin Luther King was on his way to Greenwood.
The Director was prepared. “I understand someone there’ threatening they’re gonna kill him,” he replied.
“Yeah,” said Johnson. He thought it “the best part of wisom in national interest” to make sure “we don’t find another burning car.” He said it would be a good idea for “someone” to be “in front and in back of him when he goes in.” On the next pass, he added that there “ought to be an FBI man in front and behind to observe,” and finally he said King should have an escort of FBI agents “in front and behind.”
Hoover got the point. Although there was suspicion in headquarters that King himself had planted assassination rumors through [Assistant Attorney General] Burke Marshall in order to manipulate the FBI, Hoover threw the FBI into temporary high-speed reverse on two policies: his publicly announced stance against protecting civil rights workers and his special policy of aloofness about threats to King.
I am always glad to read of contrarian takes on public figures. I don’t, however, believe that Mr. Meroney’s analysis is supported by the available exhaustive work on the subject, work he himself cites. With regard to his relationship with King, Hoover, to my mind, comes across as a racist bureaucratic slug, engaging in a surveillance program that had no basis in national security or anything old-fashioned as evidence. This wretched figure could not even follow the basic precepts of office of passing on death threats, providing protection for those under threat from bombing and murder, or rescinding protection for an informant who committed murder, though he did have time to gleefully try to push a great American leader to suicide.
There may be evidence for Mr. Meroney’s take on Hoover; it may be like some of Hoover’s evidence, used for blackmail and persecution, existent, well hidden, and to be revealed at a later time. Or it may be like some other of Hoover’s evidence, well hidden, to be revealed at a later time, and not existing at all.