The FBI’s aggressive efforts against Martin Luther King Jr. remain a huge stain on the Bureau, and exemplary of the dirty work it carried out during the long 1960s. Less known, but of no less consequence, was the unwanted attention it directed at Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late civil rights leader. Scott King was meticulously monitored by the Bureau, which compiled over 500 pages of records on her. Her file offers not only a clear view of the FBI and government’s preoccupation with Communist infiltration during the Cold War — and the depths the FBI would sink to in attempting to undermine anyone associated with it — but the larger racist ugliness festering in U.S. society, one still very much present.
The Bureau’s Priorities
The FBI’s key motivation in building a file on Coretta Scott King was grounded in the Cold War dynamic of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The bureau was fixated on determining whether the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its leader, Martin Luther King Jr., were consorting with or being influenced by Communists.
Through an effort known as Operation SOLO — a highly secret scheme pried loose by scholar David Garrow in 1981 — the Bureau had intelligence that a concealed Communist was serving as a key adviser of King. That adviser, Stanley Levison, had been identified by Communist Party member Jack Childs. Jack, along with his brother Morris, were FBI informants serving in high ranks of the Communist Party (CP).
There remains controversy as to whether or not Childs’s information was wholly accurate, but what is not contested is that the FBI used the alleged ties to target King — including wiretapping him — resulting in the FBI garnering a good deal of salacious and other information on him. That was the backdrop to the public sparring with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that culminated in a verbal attack by Hoover, who called King “the most notorious liar in the country.” This all happened around the time King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
All of this controversy was impacting those around MLK, especially his wife, as this February 15, 1965, informant report to the FBI director from the special agent in charge of the Atlanta office makes clear:
CORETTA said that this attack really hurt because HOOVER has a large following in this country and many of these people will believe anything he says.
Scott King’s assessment is at once on-target for its moment, but also evocative of our current one.
Martin Luther King Jr. would be viciously gunned down on April 4, 1968. In the wake of his assassination, the Bureau would shift its attention of Levison and the SCLC onto Scott King. Two weeks after King’s murder, the Bureau wrote a memo, based on information “From a confidential source who has furnished reliable information in the past.” Who that was is unclear, though by then the Bureau had more than one informant in King’s organization, including King’s accountant James. A. Harrison and the photographer Ernest Withers. It was through such sources they ascertained that Stanley Levison had been in contact with Coretta Scott King and reported the following:
Levison referred to Coretta King’s possible appearance at the major mass anti-Vietnam war demonstration scheduled for New York City on April 27, 1968. He said he had checked with Dave Dellinger’s (National Director, National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) office and that he, Levison, feels that it is alright for her to appear on this program and also to participate in the Mothers’ March (in Washington, D.C. in connection with the Poor Peoples Campaign) as long as she does not do anything else.
The memo closes noting once more that Levison had been a “secret member of the Communist Party,” adding the caveat that in 1963-64 he had “criticized the CP for not being sufficiently militant.” Regardless, according to the Bureau, “His differences with the CP, however, are merely tactical and he continues his ideological adherence to Communism.” Following this report, the Bureau clearly expanded its focus to also encompass Scott King.
In the course of reading the Coretta Scott King file, what becomes apparent is the paradoxical social position of her and her late husband. On the one hand, the Kings were not unique in being high-profile public figures in the Black freedom movement who faced the hostile attention of the FBI. What is unique was their proximity and access to the standing political institutions. In that respect, they were at once outsiders, demanding a seat at the table, and insiders actually invited in to sit down. King met with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the same time, the FBI was secretly recording King’s conversations, per the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This simultaneous targeting and inclusion resulted in FBI notes like this one:
On June two-zero, six-nine, Coretta King told Stanley Levison that Ethel Kennedy had contacted her that date to say she was sorry about what had been in the paper (apparently referring to the article concerning the authorization from Robert F. Kennedy, when Attorney General, to tap Martin Luther King’s telephones). Coretta added that Ethel implied that she hoped this would not interfere with their friendship.
The entry goes on, “Coretta stated that this was ‘sort of passing the buck, and they’re trying to put it all off on him [Robert F. Kennedy]’.” Coretta then added, “that he [Kennedy] may have agreed and gone along with it,” suggesting the greater blame for the wiretapping lay with the FBI. It is notable that now, the FBI is generally blamed entirely for the wiretaps, while Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general who approved them, largely gets a pass.
More striking though, is the fact that the conversation happened at all. Who could conceive of anything similar with leaders such as Malcolm X, Robert and Mabel Williams, Max Stanford, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Ella Baker or Huey P. Newton? The Kings had “one foot on the platform, one foot on the train” in relation to the ruling political apparatus, allowing them to have a close relationship with the Kennedys, including the attorney general, who had contributed in no small way to making their lives a living hell.
A Different Fear
By the late 1960s, Coretta Scott King’s FBI file shows that the ruling authorities were no longer quite as preoccupied by the threat of Communist infiltration (COMINFIL in Bureau typology) in the SCLC, but rather by a larger sense of social upheaval. At that point in history, the days of Gandhian nonviolence were well in the past, replaced by a much greater challenge. This can be seen in the following 1971 FBI report on a Deputy Attorney General’s Conference, discussing Scott King’s appearance at an upcoming peace demonstration:
Mr. [Richard] Kleindienst [who would soon become President Nixon’s attorney general] stated he was quite impressed with the intelligence the FBI was developing in the black extremist field and certainly recognized the threat these political terrorists represented…. Mr. Kleindienst further took note of the fact that Mrs. Coretta King likely would appear as a speaker before the forthcoming massive peace demonstration here in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1971, and if she is not given adequate security, extremist elements could be provided with a target which could kick things off.
Leaving aside the report’s ambiguous definition of “extremists” — who did they have in mind? — the proliferation of “long hot summers” of urban insurrections or rioting (depending on how one views such things), which reached a crescendo after MLK was assassinated, had changed how the political authorities saw matters relating to Coretta Scott King. Instead of targeting her directly, the authorities were more focused on the implications of bad things happening to her.
While there is much in the file that is quite appalling, in certain ways, it is the later releases that bring home something essential about the historic nature of Coretta Scott King and the movement she was part of. In these later files, it is not the FBI attempting to threaten and undermine Scott King, but rather violent white supremacists.
In the file is a vitriolic racist letter sent to her and forwarded to the FBI by her secretary. After invoking numerous racial epithets, the writer — identifying himself as “Alexander” — says he is going to “Slit your womb out before I kill you.” That threat was ultimately referred to the U.S. attorney in Atlanta:
US Attorney RAY TAYLOR JR, advised after careful review of [REDACTED] report concerning [REDACTED] he would decline prosecution of [REDACTED] in the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta due to [REDACTED] and due to the fact that prosecution had also been declined in Raleigh, North Carolina….
Another threat, coming in the spring of 1976, came in the form of cutout letters: “Stay off of the University of Maryland Campus or you will die! The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Reading these passages today, aside from the timelessness of how sickening it all is, one is reminded of Dylann Roof, the racist mass murderer, who slaughtered nine Black people as they undertook Bible study four-and-a-half years ago. Roof was recently thrust into the news again when Trump apologist Nikki Haley whined that Roof had given the Confederate battle flag — the symbol of the violent defense of slavery — a bad name, by being associated with it.
And here we are. Much in the way Scott King bemoaned how “many of these people will believe anything he [J. Edgar Hoover] says” to the most vile and violent racist threats leveled against a woman who had lost so much, what jumps out in reading Coretta Scott King’s FBI file today is not how long ago it all was, but how white supremacy — whether in law enforcement or otherwise — is still very much with us.
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