The Price of Conviction

Gregg Reese | 1/16/2014, 2:29 p.m.
Authors Note: Last week we investigated the Soviet Union’s KGB (intelligence agency) which..

Authors Note: Last week we investigated the Soviet Union’s KGB (intelligence agency) which attempted to discredit or assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King in hopes of starting a race war during the Cold War (1949-1989). This week we investigate the FBI’s attempt to commit similar acts of sabotage.

April 4, 1967, was a milestone in the public life of Martin Luther King Jr. Heretofore, he had been known primarily as a civil rights activist, but today he was making a departure from his previous ideological doctrine. Today in New York’s historical Riverside Church he was going to come out publicly against the Vietnam War. King had made public utterances against the conflict before, taking care not to alienate his supporters in the White community, but today the war and its moral ramifications would be the main focus of his address (hence its title “Beyond Vietnam”) before more than 3,000 parishioners in one of the foremost Black churches in the United States. Unbeknownst to King, his proclamation would again place him in the crosshairs of the FBI.

For Dr. King, it was part of a logical progression. The conflict in a strange, little country few even knew existed resonated mightily within the core of his being, since increasingly larger numbers of those designated for combat in that far off corner of the world were young “Negro” boys, as they were called by polite society back then, and many of those close to him, especially his wife, Coretta Scott King, were urging him to become more vocal. More importantly, he may have reached a point where, as a man of the cloth, he realized his allegiance to the world at large as opposed to one specific church congregation or ethnic group.

Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, normally an ardent proponent of civil rights, took steps to divert funds from the War on Poverty to Vietnam in December of 1966, which forced King to question the rationale of taking “young Black men who have been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enjoyed a position of power equaled by few men in the history of U.S. politics. Serving under eight American presidents, more than one of his “superiors” suppressed the urge to have him fired no doubt because of the political backlash and retaliation that was sure to follow. During his almost 50-year tenure at the helm, he amassed vast dossiers on potential enemies in the government and political arena and beyond, specializing in the sort of inflammatory information they would go to great lengths to keep covered.

A man given to many pet peeves, the foremost of which was subversion, he was known for his relentless pursuit of those (in his view) who constituted a threat to the security of the government. During the course of his career they’d included leftist radicals in the aftermath of World War I, bank robbers and bootleggers during the Depression, Nazi saboteurs in World War II, and communist sympathizers during the 1950s.