LBJ was Hoover's Co-Conspirator in the FBI's War on King and Civil RightsRoundup
tags: civil rights, FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson
Jonathan Eig is the author of the forthcoming book King: A Life. Jeanne Theoharis is the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, which has been adapted for a documentary.
We have long known about the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover’s animus toward the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover built an extensive apparatus of surveillance and disruption designed to destroy King and to drive a wedge between King and President Lyndon Johnson.
But historians, journalists and contemporary political leaders have largely portrayed Hoover as a kind of uncontrollable vigilante, an all too powerful and obsessive lawman, and Johnson as a genuine civil rights partner until King broke with the president over the Vietnam War. In reality, as new documents reveal, Johnson was more of an antagonist to King and a conspirator with Hoover than he has been portrayed.
By personalizing the F.B.I.’s assault on King, Americans cling to a view of history that isolates a few bad actors who opposed the civil rights movement — including Hoover, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and the Birmingham lawman Bull Connor. They thus fail to acknowledge the institutionalized, well-organized resistance to change in our society. Americans prefer a version of history in which most decent people did the right thing in the end.
It’s time to move past that comfortable story and recognize the power structure that supported the F.B.I.’s campaign. Many Americans — starting with the president — thought movement activists like King posed threats to the established order and needed to be watched and controlled. Members of the press could have exposed the bureau’s campaign. And many government officials who could have stopped, curtailed or exposed the F.B.I.’s attack on King instead enabled or encouraged it.
F.B.I. records declassified in the past several years and documents from the Johnson archives released in 2022 force us to reconsider the nature of Johnson’s involvement in the F.B.I.’s campaign against King. The White House documents — part of a huge cache of F.B.I. memos that has only begun to see daylight — suggest that Johnson, from the beginning of his presidency in 1963 to King’s assassination in 1968, was apprised almost weekly by Hoover himself on the F.B.I.’s surveillance of King.
Johnson did nothing to stop or rein in the F.B.I., even after at least one top administration official expressed concern. In all likelihood, that was because Johnson saw strategic advantage in knowing about King’s activities as he worked with King on civil rights legislation, and perhaps he saw even more utility when King began to criticize the president’s policies, especially concerning the Vietnam War. At the same time, according to the president’s aides, Johnson clearly enjoyed having access to the prurient details of King’s life.
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