FBI’s Praise of MLK Was Less Than Well-Received 

Roman_studio / shutterstock.com
Roman_studio / shutterstock.com

The FBI’s social media manager should really be looking for a new job following a tone-deaf post on X on Martin Luther King Day this past Monday. 

“This MLK Day, the FBI honors one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement and reaffirms its commitment to Dr. King’s legacy of fairness and equal justice for all,” the post read. 

The post didn’t take long to detonate on social media platforms.  

It is a documented fact that the FBI, under Director J. Edgar Hoover, engaged in extensive surveillance of King. The bureau attempted to discredit him and employed manipulation tactics to undermine his efforts in civil rights. These actions were part of the FBI’s covert counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO, which targeted various civil rights leaders and organizations during the 1960s. 

COINTELPRO was a program that started in 1956. The program aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations and individuals considered subversive or radical. Among its tactics, the FBI engaged in extensive surveillance, utilizing wiretaps, physical surveillance, and mail interception to gather intelligence on civil rights leaders, activists, and organizations. In addition to surveillance, COINTELPRO involved the infiltration of targeted groups by undercover agents posing as activists to gain trust and gather information from within. 

The program also employed disinformation campaigns, spreading false information to sow dissent and mistrust within targeted groups. Harassment tactics were utilized to disrupt the activities of individuals and organizations, ranging from anonymous threats to intimidation. COINTELPRO sought to prevent activism by creating conflicts and divisions among leaders and members and actively worked to neutralize perceived threats, preventing the rise of influential leaders who could unite various movements. 

The most well-documented instance of COINTELPRO’s actions was its involvement in the civil rights movement, which targeted leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The 2020 documentary “MLK/FBI,” directed by Sam Pollard, reveals extensive surveillance on King and his inner circle. The film exposed how officials, using resources like wiretaps, engaged in a comprehensive effort to spy on King to damage his reputation.  

In 2021, Pollard highlighted the FBI’s aggressive tactics, describing it as an “all-out assault.” The documentary details how the FBI would enter hotels ahead of King and his associates, gaining access from the management, to bug their rooms and set up nearby rooms for eavesdropping on King’s conversations and activities. 

The program’s controversial methods led to criticism for violating civil liberties and constitutional rights. Eventually, COINTELPRO was officially terminated in 1971, and its exposure prompted investigations and reforms to prevent similar abuses. 

Furthermore, suspicions and concerns have been raised regarding the FBI’s involvement in Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The official account of King’s assassination is that James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to the murder, acted alone and that COINTELPRO had nothing to do with the beloved civil rights leader’s death.  

But King’s family, including his widow, Coretta Scott King, have long believed that the FBI played a role in his assassination. Then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was plagued with worry that King would cause civil unrest, and it has been theorized that COINTELPRO, whose stated mission was to “neutralize perceived threats to the status quo,” played a part in his death. Ray’s retraction of his original confession added even more credence to the theory.  

Following the FBI’s MLK Day post, a community note noted multiple news sources that highlighted the extent of the FBI’s harassment of King. “The FBI engaged in surveillance of King, attempted to discredit him, and used manipulation tactics to influence him to stop organizing. King’s family believed the FBI was responsible for his death,” the pinned community note read. 

In a damage control statement, the FBI observed that the agency had “long acknowledged the abuses of power that took place” while under Hoover and the scope of the horrible actions used against King and other civil rights leaders under COINTELPRO. The statement added, “Today, the FBI honors Dr. King’s life and legacy” while noting the agency “uses those lessons from the past” in their renewed commitment to “equal justice and fairness.” 

The agency’s attempt to “right the record,” as seen in the light of the FBI’s consistent, ongoing abuse of power, is as meaningless as its first post.