‘Your Concern About Communism is Understandable’: Letters to the FBI About MLK, 50 Years Later

Remembering a time when the civil rights leader was considered dangerous by many Americans.


Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King (5th R), civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy (5th L), John Lewis (3rd L) and other civil and religious leaders, make their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 22, 1965 in Alabama, on the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

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Ava DuVernay's Selma uses a fitting and clever trick to escape the biopic's problem of getting bogged down in exposition. Whenever the scene changes, or the date moves ahead, quotes from the FBI's monitoring of Martin Luther King Jr. are typed out on the screen. It's a subtle reminder that before King was martyred and memorialized, he was under constant surveillance. The movie's less subtle reminders of this–a scene in which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tells President Lyndon B. Johnson about his monitoring of King, and a scene in which a harassing phone caller plays a tape of one of King's affairs–have come under fire from the people who viewed the movie as unfair to Johnson.

That's distracted from the point of the FBI scenes. Luckily, anyone who clicks over to Archive.org can download troves of FOIA'd FBI documents about King, everything from internal memos to letters sent to Hoover to letters Hoover sent back. Reason's Jesse Walker, who writes that it's "important to recall how dangerous many people considered the civil rights leader when he was alive," linked to a few of the correspondences on Monday, noting that the FBI gave polite pro forma responses.

Head to the mid-20s in the 121-part archive, though, and you can find correspondence from around the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. This was a time, as Selma portrays, when police brutality against protesters sparked a backlash against Southern voting rights restrictions, and broke a logjam in Congress. Yet it's easy to poke around and find citizens, in March 1965, asking Hoover to confirm that King was dangerous. From Florida:


From Indiana:


From California:


Very occasionally, a response would go out under Hoover's name, offering some helpful information about the threat of Communism.


At the same time, the FBI was constantly intercepting death threats against MLK. One from the day before the Selma marches:


One from the end of the month:


Again, all of that was happening while the Congress was gearing up to pass the Voting Rights Act. Anyone can read this and realize again just how remarkable it is to have "Martin Luther King Day" marked on a calendar–well, unless he lives in Selma. In Alabama, as in Arkansas and Mississippi, it's a day to remember King while remembering Robert E. Lee.

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