The fact that the FBI sent Martin Luther King a letter demanding he kill himself or risk the release of recordings of his extra-marital assignations has been known for decades. But the complete and uncensored version of the letter only came to light three years ago. You can see it here. Yale historian Beverly Gage happened on the original version of the letter during research at the National Archives.
There is a lot contained in this letter. To put it mildly.
One is about the history of the FBI. Going back into its earliest origins the FBI provided a conventional law enforcement function. Even in the era in which events like this letter happened it played a role investigating and prosecuting what we now call hate crimes in the South that state authorities not only refused to prosecute but in which they were in many instances. I’m tempted to refer to actions like this as “abuses.” But that doesn’t really cover it. ‘Abuses’ suggests some frequent or even systematic divergence from some recognized norm or behavior.
The Hoover era FBI was quite simply, in vast domains of its action and purview, a lawless organization. It not only routinely broke the law with illegal searches and surveillance. It operated as what amounts to an internal secret police force not only surveilling and attempting to disrupt groups which might plausibly, if not always accurately, be seen as plotting the overthrow of the state but reformist groups, mere dissenters and activists, who threatened the country’s racial or political status quo.
Even that doesn’t cover the extent of the cancer Hoover himself represented. Hoover did not found the FBI but he essentially created it. The FBI’s predecessor organization, the Bureau of Investigation, was formed in 1908. It only became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935, at which point Hoover had already been running it for a decade. But this evolution and name change obscures the larger fact that the institution we know as the FBI, as opposed to an obscure federal investigatory office from which it emerged, was Hoover’s creation. Not only did Hoover turn the power of the FBI against reformers like King he managed to remain in power for almost 50 years in significant measure because the presidents who might have fired him and in a number of cases wanted to fire him feared retribution.
The Hoover era FBI collected compromising information on lots of people, as we can see from the King example. It’s a matter of some historical debate how much presidents retained Hoover specifically because they feared retribution. Nixon explicitly mentions this concern on one of his tapes. (Ironically, Nixon and Hoover had a close personal alliance that went back 20 years.) But Hoover was canny and political and made himself helpful, perhaps even indispensable, to presidents who might otherwise have wanted to fire him.
The other thing about the “King” letter is that our heroes are complex and flawed. Clearly the FBI’s efforts to collect incriminating information and use that information to attempt to blackmail King into suicide was horrifically wrong. But this history of infidelity could have come to light in legal ways. It’s hard to believe that a couple decades later it wouldn’t have come to light through aggressive media sleuthing. Would the country have been better off for having that information? It’s very hard to see how the answer to that question can be a yes.