Except the agency wasn’t dedicated to protecting MLK. In fact, the peaceful pioneer of 20th-century civil rights was targeted by the law enforcement agency as a domestic enemy. The FBI once told King in a letter to kill himself.
King, the FBI wrote in a memo highlighted by a new documentary out last fall, was “the most dangerous Negro in America,” and warranted the “use [of] every resource at our disposal to destroy him” after King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Two months later, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps of MLK’s Atlanta residence and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices under the pretense of investigating ties to communism. In what’s become typical of agency probes, however, the bureau went on to expand its surveillance operation by tapping hotel rooms King visited. Collecting blackmail information on King’s extramarital affairs, the goal was to ruin his reputation and stifle the movement.
As King’s rise continued to bring change to a segregated country, criticism of the FBI came with it. The SCLC president condemned the law enforcement agency for its apathy toward civil rights abuses, angering the bureau’s leaders who were eager to bring him down.
After then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called King the “most notorious liar in the country,” during a 1964 press conference over King’s criticism, the agency sent a letter to King with tape recordings of the civil rights leader’s promiscuity in a D.C. hotel. The letter said that with a 34-day deadline “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation,” King ought to kill himself to save from embarrassment.