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.