Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on November 15, 2014.
As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s important to know that in life, the civil rights leader had many enemies—one being the FBI.
A letter sent from the FBI to Dr. King, which was uncovered by a Yale historian in 2014, demonstrates just how much hated he and his push for justice was during the height of the movement.
The vicious letter, believed to be anonymously sent by former assistant director of the FBI William Sullivan, was believed to only exist in censored, redacted form. Beverly Gage, however, found a complete version of the original letter in the National Archives, telling NPR of the discovery that she “was amazed. This really is one of the most famous documents that there is. It’s sort of like this Holy Grail.”
The anonymous letter has in the past been dubbed “the suicide letter,” because it implies that Dr. King should kill himself in its infamous closing sentences, which state, “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
Gage revealed her discovery in a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which shows the original one-page letter in full. An image of the letter reveals it was typewritten, with some of its errors hand-corrected. It addresses the Reverend as “King,” its writer indicating that he refuses to “dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr.”
The letter heavily criticizes Dr. King’s sex and personal life, calling him a “filthy, abnormal animal.” The 50-year-old letter was part of a campaign by the FBI to stop his Civil Rights efforts. Gage indicated that Hoover’s FBI attempted to discredit King through his extramarital affairs: “The FBI took the information they had about King’s sex life and talked to a lot of friendly reporters in Washington and elsewhere.”
The press, however, didn’t report on the information the agency had gathered regarding Dr. King, and rumors of his extramarital affairs did not begin until years after his assassination. FBI wiretap recordings that allegedly contained proof of his extramarital affairs were also included when the agency mailed the original letter to him.
Gage indicated that while modern society might be shocked by the letter’s contents, given that the nation has accepted Dr. King as a national hero, this wasn’t always the case. The historian said, “It’s always a little bit easier to make those judgments once we’ve all agreed that Martin Luther King was a hero, whereas in the ’60s…he was this hugely controversial figure. When lots of people really did think he was a threat to the social order, it’s much harder to make those kinds of judgments.”