When the FBI told MLK to kill himself (who are they targeting now?)

We've known for years that the FBI spied on Martin Luther King's personal life and sent him an anonymous letter in 1964 threatening to out him for his sexual indiscretions unless he killed himself in 34 days. Now we have an unredacted version of the notorious letter.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, the practice of spying on the personal lives of activists and blackmailing them in order to disrupt political movements is alive and well -- for example, there's the UK spy agency GCHQ's Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group (JTRIG), whose mission (documented in a Snowden leak) is to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt enemies by discrediting them.”

The implications of these types of strategies in the digital age are chilling. Imagine Facebook chats, porn viewing history, emails, and more made public to discredit a leader who threatens the status quo, or used to blackmail a reluctant target into becoming an FBI informant. These are not far-fetched ideas. They are the reality of what happens when the surveillance state is allowed to grow out of control, and the full King letter, as well as current intelligence community practices illustrate that reality richly.

FBI's "Suicide Letter" to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dangers of Unchecked Surveillance [Nadia Kayyali/EFF]

Notable Replies

  1. Do we know if MLK ever actually read through to the threat part of that letter? I would have thought he'd have gotten a ton of that shit and archived it in the trash after two sentences.

  2. Why does a letter from the FBI to Martin Luther King read like the letter from a resentful, powerless and crazy person to whoever is calling in their loans?

  3. That's pretty common knowledge thanks to the aforementioned FBI surveillance. The point is that they were monitoring his sex life at all, let alone trying to goad him into suicide over it. Especially considering that J. Edgar Hoover's alleged sex life didn't exactly pass social muster at the time either.

  4. Drew_G says:

    You could, you know, read the article boingboing linked to. That explains it.

  5. LDoBe says:

    Not retarded. The full, unredacted letter matches the unredacted parts of the censored versions available to the public. The EFF's summary links to the original article at the New York Times, the provenance of this new unredacted copy is claimed to be from a reprocessed collection of Hoover's documents that was found in the national archives in MD.

    From the NYT
    This summer, while researching a biography of Hoover, I was surprised to
    find a full, uncensored version of the letter tucked away in a
    reprocessed set of his [J. Edgar Hoover's] official and confidential files at the National
    Also, from Findings on MLK Assassination at Archives.gov:
    The nature of the Bureau's campaign against Dr. King is vividly illustrated by one incident. Shortly after Director Hoover's press conference in November 1964, in which he referred to Dr. King as the country's "most notorious liar," (50) a package was mailed to Dr. King. It contained an anonymous diatribe against the civil rights leader and a copy of an electronic surveillance tape, apparently to lend credence to threats of exposure of derogatory personal information made in the letter.

    The surveillance tape referred to is known to be part of the FBI's campaign against King. Either the FBI suddenly became a porous information sieve under perhaps the most paranoid director it's ever had, or the FBI was the perpetrator.

    Edited for clarity. I misread the article as saying the archived cache was of MLK's documents, but upon re-reading I see now that the letter was found in a cache of Hoover's documents, which is obviously much stronger evidence to show that it was the FBI that wrote the letter and sent it to MLK.

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