J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had a vendetta against Martin Luther King, Jr. They wiretapped him, threatened to expose his sexual misconduct, accused him of Communist sympathies, and even went so far as to send him a letter encouraging him to commit suicide (though some maintain it was just telling him to step down from leadership). It's easy to think that the FBI was just trying to discredit the civil rights movement as a whole, and that one of their castration strategies was removing the figurehead or fracturing the movement. But the account of William Sullivan, the author of the threatening letter, tells a different story, namely that he hoped they could bring Samuel Pierce to the forefront of the movement to minimize the shock of the removal of King. According to his autobiography, he wrote the following in a letter to Hoover:

It should be clear to all of us that Martin Luther King must, at some propitious point in the future, be revealed to the people of this country and to his Negro followers as being what he actually is – a fraud, demagogue and scoundrel. When the true facts concerning his activities are presented, such should be enough, if handled properly, to take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence. When this is done, and it can be and will be done, obviously much confusion will reign, particularly among the Negro people... The Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to steer them in the proper direction. This is what could happen, but need not happen if the right kind of a national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed so as to overshadow Dr. King and be in the position to assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited.

For some months I have been thinking about this matter. One day I had an opportunity to explore this from a philosophical and sociological standpoint with an acquaintance whom I have known for some years.... I asked him to give the matter some attention and if he knew any Negro of outstanding intelligence and ability to let me know and we would have a discussion. He has submitted to me the name of the above-captioned person. Enclosed with this memorandum is an outline of (the person's) biography which is truly remarkable for a man so young. On scanning this biography, it will be seen that (Samuel Pierce) does have all the qualifications of the kind of a Negro I have in mind to advance to positions of national leadership....

If this thing can be set up properly without the Bureau in any way becoming directly involved, I think it would be not only a great help to the FBI but would be a fine thing for the country at large. While I am not specifying at this moment, there are various ways in which the FBI could give this entire matter the proper direction and development. There are highly placed contacts of the FBI who might be very helpful to further such a step. These can be discussed in detail later when I have probed more fully into the possibilities.

So which is it? Were they trying to bolster the movement by replacing King with a better leader (untainted by infidelities and Communism), or destroy it by removing King and leaving the movement headless (or at least without such a charismatic leader)? Or perhaps there's a third option.

Obviously the "motives" of an entire institution are nigh impossible to pin down, but for the purposes of this question I'm interested in the motives of Hoover, Clyde Tolson, and Sullivan, as well as can be ascertained from the historical record. Anyone else you think would be relevant would also be welcome.

  • 1
    eff.org/deeplinks/2014/11/… “We will now have to depend on our older leaders like Wilkins, a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done.” This line is key, because part of the FBI’s strategy was to try to fracture movements and pit leaders against one another. so the goal was for it to be destroyed by itself, because of infighting. I'm not sure about the motives.
    – user45891
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 20:53
  • 2
    What you define as a "goal" is exactly what I'm looking for in terms of motives. But what the article claims contradicts the words of Sullivan himself, which I'll add to the body of my question. I'm not saying that makes the article incorrect, but it does mean that either Sullivan is a liar or the article misstates his views. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 21:29
  • 7
    As a point of comparison, the FBI accumulated a 1427-page file on Albert Einstein, tapped his phone, searched his trash, and tied him to "communist-sympathizer" organizations such as the American Crusade Against Lynching. The impression I get is that Hoover was just kind of nuts.
    – user2848
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 6:40
  • Given their paranoia, probably because he might be a communist revolutionary.
    – user5001
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 12:15

1 Answer 1


I suspect that you are overthinking it.

Given that USSR exploited every sympathiser for its nefarious purposes (cf. Atomic spies, communists in the state department &c), and given that Hoover, as the FBI Director, was acutely aware of that (much more than the general public!), it is hardly surprising that he viewed everyone leaning to the Left as suspect and wished to undermine them.

E.g., FBI spied on Einstein too, even though his political views were hardly communist.


FBI records show that COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed subversive, including anti-Vietnam War organizers, activists of the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power movement (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party), feminist organizations, anti-colonial movements (such as Puerto Rican independence groups like the Young Lords), and a variety of organizations that were part of the broader New Left. White supremacist groups were also targeted, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

  • 3
    I find the down votes confusing. A frame challenge (or challenging the assumptions in a question as part of an answer) is a valid form of response, and the logic presented is reasonably laid out. Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 3:46
  • 3
    Not sure Einstein is the best example. He was an avowed socialist and an admirer of Lenin. Both of these, during the Red Scare, would certainly be enough to call someone a Communist. Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 12:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.