Did the U.S. Government’s COINTELPRO contribute to the demise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Author’s Note: To switch gears a little bit, I thought this week’s post should come from a bit of a political standpoint. Primarily, my efforts here are to elucidate and illustrate the idea that for those who still struggle everyday, champing at the bit of institutionalized racism, which we should all note  is alive and well (Don’t believe me? Check the news on any given day and look for stories about #redlining, #policeBrutality, #PostRacialSociety) things are not that different than they were during the heyday of the civil rights movement 50 years ago. How much Progress have we really made in American Society in the last half decade? Especially in light of the revelations by Edward Snowden and many others about the Government’s program to delve into our private lives an intrude into our personal spaces. Can we early trust that the government is working in our best interests, when much of what they do will only come to light in redacted form, after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request? At any rate, they say the past is prologue… If that is true, then history is just a repetitive cycle and if we don’t learn from our mistakes, then we’re just doomed to repeat them. That is a grim thought given the current state of things. How far are we from a House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC)  being convened once more…. 



       In 1975, the Church Committee Report was issued. In it, Democratic Senator from Idaho, Frank Church, the Chairman of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities investigated intelligence gathering by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for illegality, after a number of questionable activities had come to light via the Watergate scandal. Until this time, there had been very little oversight of domestic activity as it regarded intelligence gathering behavior by these agencies on a number of American citizens whose views, both social and political, differed with the overt (and many times, covert) aims of the government. The focus of this document will be to examine the effect that such covert intelligence gathering had on the life, and ultimately the death, of the Christian minister and human rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


       In many ways, this state sanctioned domestic spying program was used, not so much as a way of gathering information on the whereabouts and movements of their targets, but moreover as a means of intimidation and the suppression of the rights to life and liberty promised in the preamble to the constitution. Contravening the rights of these persons and groups was done clandestinely and may have contributed to the demise of several of its subjects, many of whom were considered a threat to the status quo of American society at the time. They most assuredly contributed to the feelings of persecution and powerlessness that were felt by many social activists of the period.

     The 1960s had been a turbulent time. The racial and ideological stances of the American government and its people were being heavily questioned on all sides and that criticism became the leverage used by men like J. Edgar Hoover to justify their covert domestic spying programs. This surveillance, and its obligatorily secret collection of information, most of which only came to light in the 1970s after the release of the full Church Committee Report, posed a grave threat to both civil liberties and our constitutional government in the eyes of many. Under more severe scrutiny, and after testimony before both the Senate and Congress regarding these pursuits, it became clear that the original scope and purpose of these actions had suffered from severe mission creep; which became the root of this thorny issue: Once an agency like the FBI is tasked with surreptitiously overseeing an individual within the United States (U.S.), especially the personage of a U.S. citizen, particularly a high-profile individual, where does it draw the line?

     As regards Dr. Martin Luther King, one would assume these investigations should have ended with his untimely death but, unfortunately, this was not the case. The FBI only closed its case files on Dr. King and his widow, Dr. Coretta Scott King, in 1972 — a full four years after his assassination — further demonstrating how wide-ranging the scope of the FBI’s intrusion into the lives of civil rights era activists went.(1) According to the FBI’s own files, they began an “intensive campaign … to neutralize him as an effective civil rights leader” as early as 1963.(2) The choice of words is, of course, significant. By definition, when you neutralize something (or, in this case, someone) it is an act to counterbalance its effects and render it useless. In the intelligence community however, another connotation of the word neutralize is to dispose of it. In relation to a human life, this would clearly mean to snuff it out, which sadly, is exactly what occurred to Dr. King on April 4th, 1968 when he was brutally murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

     And what of that assassin? King’s purported killer, James Earl Ray, was a convicted thief and prison escapee who had served in the U.S. Army in Germany during World War II (WWII). Ray was also a virulent racist who supported Governor George Wallace’s attempt to run for the presidency on a platform of segregation in 1968. Wallace, famous for the “Segregation Forever” statement made in his 1963 inaugural address for the governorship of Alabama, was somewhat of a cause célèbre in southern racist circles, so it should come as no surprise that someone with Ray’s segregationist inclinations would support him.(3) King’s diametrically opposed penchant against racism and his esteemed profile within the Civil Rights movement made him a natural target for men like Ray and others of his ilk.


     King, staying at the Lorraine Motel, as was his custom when in Memphis, had been compelled to remain there after a threatened bombing of his scheduled flight on Eastern Airlines canceled his travel plans. “‘Your airline brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, and when he comes again a bomb will go off, and he will be assassinated,’ was the message left by an anonymous caller to Eastern Airlines.”(4) When the bullets tore through his cheek and lodged in his torso on the balcony of the motel, it was less a surprise and almost more of an expected inevitability to the minds of many in the movement. King himself had recently spoken about the threats to his life and his possible demise in speeches delivered to masses of supporters of the cause of equal rights and freedom. His Mountaintop Speech, delivered at the Mason Temple in Tennessee just the night before his assassination, was ready proof of this.

     In that now famous speech, King talks about reaching the apex of the mountain, looking over the peak into the valley, and seeing the Promised Land. His next line is the most chilling and prophetic of all as he laments, “I may not get there with you… but we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” That pronouncement, amongst many others, begs the question: was King aware that he would be assassinated? Is it possible that he was informed of his own possible murder beforehand? We may never know. It is more likely that Dr. King, already aware that there were credible threats against his life, —attempts having already been made and thwarted — was just being mindful of the possibility.(5) Sadly, he was closer to the truth than even he may have realized.

     What is known is that the FBI was abundantly aware of the many threats on the Civil Rights leaders’ life, because they were closely monitoring his activity and the activities of all of those in his inner circle. In their domestic capacity, the FBI, through the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), was scrutinizing the behavior of many groups in the U.S. at the time, not the least of which was any group involved in the struggle for civil rights. Fearful of the possible destabilization of government control by internal groups, and charged with maintaining domestic order, the FBI, under its first Director, J. Edgar Hoover opened case files on any group or person they felt was a menace to their stated mission. This mission, worked under the auspice of one theme: that “…preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”(6) Find it here: {https://archive.org/details/finalreportofsel06unit}  It was their belief that such “dangerous ideas” were purportedly being espoused by a list of citizens that included Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party, The American Indian Movement, The Ku Klux Klan, even Dr. Martin Luther King.

     The declassified, originating letter that was sent to 27 FBI field offices illustrated the purpose of the program as an attempt to prevent the inception of a homegrown Mau Mau-type movement — similar to what happened to the British with the Kikuyu in Kenya from 1952-1960 — from coalescing in America amongst the nascent civil rights groups. Furthermore, they feared the rise of a single Messianic figure who could “unify, and electrify” that movement.(7) Preventing such a paragon from rising out of the movement was therefore a top priority. It was in this context that shadowing Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as a few others, was discussed. The FBI set to work to find and exploit any flaws they could, in an attempt to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” what were viewed as perils from many sides.(8) Interestingly enough, amongst these perils they also counted the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

     As curious as it might sound, Hoover was indeed concerned with the pursuits of the Ku Klux Klan and sought to limit their influence in places likes Alabama and other areas of the South. This may appear surprising, given that Hoover had been called, “…a servant of racism, reaction and repression” by those who opposed him (albeit, only after his death in 1972).(9) Nevertheless, the FBI’s mishandling of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church Bombing, and the murder of Viola Liuzzo not withstanding, the FBI was in fact directed to hound and harass the KKK as well.(10) When Gary Thomas Rowe later luridly testified to the Church Committee about his part in the intimidation, beatings, and murder of Civil Rights era activists on behalf of the FBI, the details of his behavior were deemed shocking to the public at large and the FBI’s actions were severely scrutinized.


      Rowe, as an informant, had worked on behalf of the FBI and many of his exploits had been covered up in an attempt to insulate the agency from presumed litigation, a later Department of Justice inquiry found.(11) Rowe himself had been implicated in the 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo, and was even named a co-conspirator in her death by then-president, Lyndon B. Johnson.(12) Additionally, Rowe had in fact been present for the vicious attack on Freedom Riders that took place as they disembarked from a bus in Birmingham, Alabama. He testified that he had informed his Bureau contacts of the tacit agreement by local law enforcement to allow the gathered mob to attack the activists unmolested for fifteen minutes before intervening. When he subsequently inquired why nothing had been done to deter the assault, he was told: “Who were we going to report it to? The Police Department was involved.”(13)

      The attitudes expressed in that statement seem all too common in any assessment of many of the actions taken (or not undertaken) by the Bureau during the Civil Rights era. Taken in broad strokes, it demonstrates how it may have been possible that the FBI could have known about the pending assassination of Dr. King, and done little or nothing to stop it from happening. Indeed some speculate that they may have actually been involved in the killing in some way. This fact escaped few, least of all Dr. King’s widow and his children. Some time later, when a man by the name of Lloyd Jowers came forward to claim his own part in the assassination of Dr. King, seemingly exonerating James Earl Ray as a patsy, an unlikely partnership was struck between the King family and the lawyer who had originally represented Mr. Ray in his earlier trial.

     William Pepper, the above-mentioned lawyer, claimed in a civil suit brought before a Memphis jury that “state, and Memphis governmental agencies, as well as the news media conspired in the assassination.” Ray had recanted his story practically before the trial even started (although he did plead guilty at trial), and a 1979 Congressional investigation headed by Rep. Louis Stokes into the assassination of Dr. King determined that there were was “a likelihood of conspiracy in the assassination of Dr. King” and that “the expectation of financial gain was [James Earl] Ray’s primary motivation.”(14) The Congressional Committee went even further, saying: “The Department of Justice failed to supervise adequately the Domestic Intelligence Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Domestic Intelligence Division’s COINTELPRO campaign against Dr. King, grossly abused and exceeded its legal authority and failed to consider the possibility that actions threatening bodily harm to Dr. King might be encouraged by the program.”(15)

      That statement flatly decries the negligence with which the Bureau’s Counterintelligence program was wielded. Rather than a razor sharp, finely tuned, precision tool, they became a blunt instrument that was pitiably manipulated in ways that were contrary to the mission of the Federal Bureau of Investigation: “to lead and coordinate intelligence efforts that drive actions to protect the United States.”(16) As it pertains to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, if they led and coordinated intelligence actions related to this debacle, it would mean that they themselves were complicit in the murder. While it is difficult to implicate the Bureau in this horrible tragedy, one could very aptly apply the old adage about the triumph of evil requiring only for good men to do nothing. The FBI, while not acting premeditatively to harm Dr. King, clearly did little to defuse the cycle of hatred and violence that was inexorably swirling around him.

      By acting in concert with Klansmen, refusing to step in to protect Civil Rights activists when told in advance they would be attacked, and prosecuting bad actors only at the urgent behest of the President of the United States, the message they sent was loud and clear: God help you if we deem that you are a threat. One could argue, in fact, that by not deterring or preempting these instances of violence and brutality from occurring, they were in reality collaborating with those actions by tacit agreement. If they did not serve to tamp down the aggression and hostility, then they without a doubt contributed to the atmosphere of violence and hate that was pervasive at the time. To put it simply, the FBI and its counterintelligence program were derelict in their duty, and therefore bear guilt by default in contributing to the assassination of Dr. King.





[1] “FBI trailed King widow after rights leader slain.” Albany Times Union, August 31, 2007, sec. A9.

[2] Church Committee files regarding the testimony of the Assistant Director of the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI.

[3] Peter B. Levy, Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (New York: Praeger, 1992), 217.

[4] Evan Thomas, “The Worst Week of 1968.” Newsweek, November 19, 2007, p. 2. [Note: Italicization was used to indicate the quote within the quote.]

[5] Hugh Pearson, When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Seven Stories, 2004), 11.    

[6] “Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” quoted in Levy, Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (New York: Praeger, 1992), 220.

[7] Ibid., 221.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] R.J. Stove. “J. EDGAR HOOVER AND THE KU KLUX KLAN.” National Observer, no. 47, Summer (2001): 42.

[10] Viola Liuzzo, a Civil Rights activist had been shot from a moving car and killed by Klansmen. One of those in the car was Gary Thomas Rowe, an active an FBI informant. Rowe was implicated in both the bombing and Liuzzo’s murder.

[11] Ibid., sec. A10.

[12] Kaufman, Micheal T. “Gary T. Rowe Jr., 64, Who Informed on Klan In Civil Rights Killing, Is Dead.” The New York Times, October 4, 1998, sec A10.

[13] Ibid., sec. A10.

[14] Findings of the Select Committee on Assassinations in the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. April 4, 1968. http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/select-committee-report/summary.html#king

[15] Ibid.

[16] Quoted from the FBI Mission Statement at FBI.Gov, Accessed December 1, 2012, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/intelligence/mission    


Selected Bilbliography 

Albany Times Union. “FBI calls Ray’s claim of a frame-up a ‘Fabrication’.” March 26, 1998, sec. A10.


Albany Times Union. “FBI trailed King widow after rights leader slain.” August 31, 2007, sec. A9.


Drabble, John. “From White Supremacy to White Power: The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, and the Nazification of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.” American Studies 48, no. 3 (n.d.): 49-74.


Drabble, John. “The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, and the Decline of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in Alabama, 1964-1971.” Alabama Review 61, no. 1 (January 2008): 3-47.


Drabble, John. “To Ensure Domestic Tranquility: The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE and Political Discourse, 1964–1971.” Journal Of American Studies 38, no. 2 (August 2004): 297-328.


FBI Mission Statement. FBI.Gov. Accessed December 1, 2012. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/intelligence/mission.


“Findings of the Select Committee on Assassinations in the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. April 4, 1968.” U.S. Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C.” http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/select-committee-report/summary.html#king


Kaufman, Michael T. “Gary T. Rowe Jr., 64, Who Informed on Klan In Civil Rights Killing, Is Dead.” The New York Times, October 4, 1998.


Levy, Peter B. Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. New York: Praeger, 1992.


Loch K., Johnson. “Congressional Supervision of America’s Secret Agencies: The Experience and Legacy of the Church Committee.” 64, no. 1 (n.d.): 3-14.


Pearson, Hugh. When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Seven Stories, 2004.


Michele Wilson; John, Lynxwiler. “The Federal Government and the Harassment of Black Leaders: A Case Study of Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. of Birmingham.” 28, no. 5 (n.d.): 540-560.


“‘Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities’, Notable Senate Investigations, U.S. Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C.”


Sitkoff, Harvard. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.


Stove, R. J. “J. Edgar Hoover and the Ku Klux Klan.” National Observer, no. 47, (2001): 42 – 48.


Thomas, Evan. “The Worst Week of 1968.” Newsweek, November 19, 2007, p. 2.