Why People are Furious About the FBI's Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

April 4th 2017

The FBI tweeted a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Tuesday, on the anniversary of his assassination 49 years ago.

However the seemingly positive gesture, received backlash on Twitter. The FBI has a controversial, and at times, dark history with the civil rights icon, and Twitter users didn't forget it. Erin McCann from The New York Times was the first on Twitter to point out the FBI's history of spying on King. 

Other Twitter users soon followed with their own criticism.

These tweets are referring to FBI's campaign against King in the 1960s. 

Before King went to Europe to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, called King "the most notorious liar in the country" to a group of female journalists. This was reportedly around the same time King received an anonymous letter insinuating that he should commit suicide. Hoover also spread information in political circles about King's alleged sexual exploits in an attempt to damage his reputation and popularity. 

The "suicide letter" sent to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. Wikimedia Commons - wikimedia.org

An unsigned letter sent to King in 1964 outlines "adulterous acts" and "immoral conduct" like sex orgies that King allegedly participated in and calls him "evil" multiple times and also a "fraud." The letter drives home the point that these acts are allegedly "on the record" and they could be made public, a less than subtle hint at blackmail. At the end of the letter, it  says, "there is only one thing left to do. You know what it is." A sign-off that implies King can only avoid public humiliation by committing suicide. A woman's name in the picture of the letter above, now known as the "suicide letter," has been blurred out. 

A 2014 New York Times Magazine story by Yale University History Professor Beverly Gage, outlined the uncensored letter sent to King, which was later confirmed to be from the FBI, that she found in the National Archives. 

Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights march in Washington, D.C. in 1963. By Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)/ Wikimedia Commons - wikimedia.org

"When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received this letter, nearly 50 years ago, he quietly informed friends that someone wanted him to kill himself — and he thought he knew who that someone was. Despite its half-baked prose, self-conscious amateurism and other attempts at misdirection, King was certain the letter had come from the F.B.I.," wrote Gage. "Its infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, made no secret of his desire to see King discredited. A little more than a decade later, the Senate’s Church Committee on intelligence overreach confirmed King’s suspicion." The Senate Church Committee investigated intelligence abuses in federal agencies in the 1970s

J. Edgar Hoover, pictured in the middle, meets with President John F. Kennedy on the left and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy on the right in 1961.Abbie Rowe/ Wikimedia Commons - wikimedia.org

In an interview with Democracy Now, Gage said that the FBI had been wiretapping King and other civil rights activists for months or even years before the anonymous letter was sent, under the guise that civil rights activists allegedly had ties to communists.

"By 1963, right after the March on Washington, the Bureau had grown very alarmed about King’s growing influence, and they began to bug his hotel rooms while he was on the road, and they began to wiretap his home and his office, so by the time Hoover held this press conference, today, 50 years ago, they had been wiretapping King," Gage said to Democracy Now's Aaron Maté in 2014. "They had enormous amounts of information about King, about his personal life, about his political activities, and they had been watching many people in his circle, as well."

The current FBI Director James Comey has called Hoover's campaign and surveillance against King "shameful." At a 2016 conference on civil rights at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, Comey said he keeps a copy of the order to wiretap King on his desk as a way to remind himself about the potential for an abuse of power. The order was reluctantly signed by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. 

"I don’t keep that piece of history under the glass on the corner my desk because I’m trying to send some message criticizing Kennedy or criticizing Hoover. It’s bigger than that, actually," said Comey."I keep it there in that spot to remind me of what we in the FBI are responsible for and what we as humans are capable of, and why it is vital that power be overseen, be constrained, be checked."

RELATED: What MLK's Campaign on Poverty Means Today

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