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FBI spied on Coretta Scott King, files show

The agency kept track for four years, worried that she might try to link the antiwar and civil rights movements.

August 31, 2007|From the Associated Press

ATLANTA — Federal agents spied on the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for several years after his assassination in 1968, according to newly released documents that reveal the FBI worried she'd follow in the footsteps of the slain civil rights leader.

In memos that show Coretta Scott King being closely followed by the government, the FBI speaks of concern that she might attempt "to tie the anti-Vietnam movement to the civil rights movement."

The FBI closed its file on Coretta Scott King four years after her husband's death, saying, "No information has come to the attention of Atlanta which indicates a propensity for violence or affiliation of subversive elements." The memo is dated Nov. 30, 1972.

The documents were obtained by KHOU-TV in Houston in a broadcast Thursday. Coretta Scott King died in January 2006 at age 78.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- which he and King founded in 1957 -- said the documents illustrated the FBI's pattern of "despicable and devious" civil-rights-era behavior against the organization and those affiliated with it.

"The FBI kept a microphone everywhere they could where the SCLC was concerned," said Lowery, who alleged that the agency had a member of the SCLC staff on its payroll.

"Since we had nothing to hide, it was no great problem for us," Lowery said. "But we don't put it past the FBI; J. Edgar Hoover hated Martin Luther King and everything that the SCLC stood for." (Hoover was director of the FBI at the time.)

Andrew Young, a King lieutenant during the civil rights movement, agreed but said he was surprised the government focused on Coretta Scott King.

"I didn't know it and I don't think she knew it," Young said. "If ever there was a woman that had the makings of a saint, it was Coretta.

"I don't know what they were looking for; I don't know what they were expecting to find. I don't know why they wasted the government's money."

Also included in the documents are:

* A 1969 FBI memo suggesting that the agency's Atlanta office make Ralph Abernathy, then the president of the SCLC, aware of death threats for the benefit of "the disruptive effect of confusing and worrying him."

* An intercepted 1971 letter by Coretta Scott King to the National Peace Action Coalition, in which she says the Vietnam War has "ravaged our domestic programs."

* An FBI review of her 1969 book, "My Life With Martin Luther King Jr." The agent says her "selfless, magnanimous, decorous attitude is belied by . . . [her] actual shrewd, calculating, businesslike activities."

There is also evidence that the Nixon administration and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were kept informed of the FBI's nearly constant surveillance.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s activities were known to have been monitored by the federal government as he led the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Intelligence gathering on famous Americans and war critics became so infamous that rules to curtail domestic spying were put in place in the 1970s.

Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King's nephew, said Thursday that the surveillance of his aunt came as no surprise.

"We knew she was surveilled," said Farris, who is chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. "The only surprise is the intensity of the surveillance after his death. It appears it was as intense as the surveillance on my uncle."

Farris said they were both law-abiding citizens who were standing up for their constitutional rights.

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