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50 years later, a once controversial government surveillance program now means invaluable records for historians
Today, the issue of government surveillance of the American people has become a complicated political issue, with the recent leak of classified information regarding National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs. Interestingly enough, for historians of the post-World War II civil rights movement, the government surveillance of civil rights leaders and organizations, which at times was heavy-handed, has produced an invaluable historical record of the day-to-day actions of the most important social movement of the 20th century.
Beginning in 1962, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started watching the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after informants within the ranks of the American Communist Party told the FBI that one of King’s advisers, New York lawyer Stanley Levison, had been affiliated with the Communist Party. After the highly successful August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, the FBI’s interest in King increased.
In the fall of 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI to expand its surveillance of King. As a result, wiretaps were placed on King’s own home and office phones. In addition, the FBI’s concern with King led to an extensive FBI effort to listen to and record King’s most private moments by means of surreptitious “bugs” that were secretly planted in King’s hotel rooms by specially trained FBI agents.
ProQuest has now digitized these valuable FBI files and made them available online in ProQuest History Vault, Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century, Federal Government Records. The Martin Luther King Jr. FBI file supplies invaluable first-hand information on King’s planning of civil rights protests in Birmingham in 1963, Selma in 1965, Chicago in 1966, and King’s controversial 1967 decision to vocally oppose the Vietnam War.
The FBI file on King also maps the planning of King’s final crusade, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which was about to get started when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
[Photo (top): December 31, 1964 FBI memo regarding SCLC plans for 1965]
The separate King-Levison file, also part of ProQuest History Vault, reveals much about the movement, as well as the personal side of Dr. King. In a 1965 conference call with Andrew Young, Stanley Levison and others, King voiced doubts concerning his ability to publicly oppose the Vietnam War while maintaining the civil rights struggle: "I don't really have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going… The deeper you get involved the deeper you have to go… and I am already overloaded and almost emotionally fatigued."
[Photo: FBI transcript of King’s phone call with Stanley Levison, Andrew Young, Harry Wachtel, Clarence Jones, Cleveland Robinson, and Wyatt Walker, and Walter Fauntroy, September 12, 1965]
The FBI didn’t limit its surveillance to Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI also tracked other civil rights leaders, major civil rights organizations, and cities and towns that were major civil rights “hot spots”. Alongside the King FBI File, ProQuest History Vault’s Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century, Federal Government Records also includes outstanding FBI records on the following cities that were the location for important civil rights campaigns: Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; Selma, Alabama; and Memphis, Tennessee.
The FBI File on Albany, Georgia contains detailed and almost daily reports on civil rights events in Albany from 1961 to 1964. During the summer of 1962, civil rights protests were especially intense. The page shown here is an example of the FBI’s reporting during the summer of 1962.
For more information on the FBI surveillance files in ProQuest History Vault, and the other Black Studies resources available from ProQuest, visit our Black Studies website, where you can sign up for a free trial of History Vault.