On this day sixty years ago, October 10, 1963, the Department of Justice signed a memo granting the FBI permission to conduct technical, wall-to-wall surveillance on Martin Luther King, Jr. The eloquence and reach of King following the March on Washington had so alarmed the Kennedy administration and the bureau that six weeks later they felt drastic steps had to be taken. The bureau had already been surveilling King for some time, but this memo gave them something new: the ability to wiretap him at his home, at his office, or at “any future address to which he may move.” The FBI interpreted that language very liberally. It could be read as allowing continued surveillance if Martin Luther King, Jr. changed residences—if he picked up and moved his permanent address. But they chose instead to interpret it as saying that surveillance was permitted anywhere King moved, and used this to begin to wiretap him during his travels, installing microphones and bugs in his hotel rooms.
The FBI’s campaign against King, of course, is far from unknown. In the past few decades, even the federal government has publicly acknowledged it—if only as a way of distancing itself from its past. Indeed, Former Director of the FBI James Comey kept a record of the Kennedy memo on his desk as a supposed reminder of that “shameful” history.
But it’s one that we haven’t actually learned from, as Lerone A. Martin shows. Doing so would require the government to do some soul-searching: to commit to understanding the ideas and the influence of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who steered the bureau for thirty-seven years. Martin’s new book, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism (2023), is a worthy addition to this project, painstakingly documenting the religious ideology at the core of Hoover’s politics. Using thousands of newly declassified files—including records he had to sue the FBI to gain access to—the book reveals the crucial role of white Christian nationalism in Hoover’s FBI and modern practices of domestic intelligence.
Jeanne Theoharis, author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (2018), interviewed Martin to discuss his book, the religious beliefs at the heart of Hoover’s FBI, and what it shows us for understanding the bureau and our country today.
Jeanne Theoharis: Why is this date marking the Kennedy administration’s authorization of the FBI’s wiretapping of King so important? What does it reveal about the FBI’s relationship to King—and what have we not adequately understood about this history?
Lerone A. Martin: It reveals how the FBI’s perceptions of race and religion, not evidence, led them to surveil King. The memo was a long-awaited gift for Hoover. At first, some of the FBI agents were not convinced of the need to surveil King in the first place. They told Hoover, “No, there’s no communist infiltration here.” In some ways, they were patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves on what they thought was the success of the COINTELPRO campaign in decimating the communist movement. But then, Hoover pushed back following King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, fearful of King’s influence in the “racial revolution.” Hoover’s FBI perceived Reverend King’s gospel as a direct threat to what it still saw as a Christian nation.
And the FBI allowed this fear to supersede the lack of evidence of communist infiltration. “Facts by themselves are not too meaningful, for they are somewhat like stones tossed in a heap as contrasted to the same stones put in the form of a sound edifice,” the FBI concluded in a different memo. “It is obvious to us now that we did not put the proper interpretation upon the facts.” They marked King as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” and moved forward with their counterintelligence campaign.
Unfortunately, the bureau is repeating this history today. Government data tells us that white supremacist violence is the top threat to the homeland. But national security policy continues to focus on communities of color, especially Muslim communities. In 2017 the Trump administration put forth a Muslim ban to secure the homeland, despite the facts. The FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism program focuses on communities of color, especially Muslim communities, despite the facts. And the now-shuttered DOJ China Initiative stoked anti-Asian hate and false charges, such as in the prosecution of Dr. Feng “Franklin” Tao, under the guise of national security. There is no doubt a direct line from Kennedy’s memo to our current moment.
JT: You’re not the first person to take on the FBI under Hoover. How does your research help us see the FBI’s mission in a new light?
LM: All of the books about Hoover—like Richard Gid Powers’s Secrecy and Power (1987) and Beverly Gage’s recent G-Man (2022)—mention Hoover’s religious upbringing, but I try to go a little further, showing how this is not something that he forgets when he becomes an adult. I argue instead that this religious upbringing shapes his entire worldview: that if we want to take him seriously as a political subject, we need to take him seriously as a man of faith. His life proves this. He had a lifelong relationship with his pastor, appointed an honorary “Chaplain of the FBI,” rented a pew at his church, served as a trustee for that church, and produced voluminous religious writings.
And I’m not just studying his faith in isolation. I wanted to know how it shaped his FBI. Bureau men, for one, were shaped accordingly. They went to worship services that were held especially for FBI agents and their families, and attended spiritual retreats, communion breakfasts, and masses at various field offices.
Hoover also engaged in a whole host of partnerships with faith communities. Undergirded by taxpayer funds, Hoover became one of the most voluminous and productive producers of religious literature, both Protestant and Catholic. The bureau—or to be more accurate, its ghostwriters—was one of the most noteworthy religious authors of the Cold War era. One of the most significant partnerships was with Christianity Today, one of the most popular conservative periodicals of the day. With homilies and essays such as “Communist Domination or Christian Rededication” and “The Communist Menace: Red Goals and Christian Ideals,” Hoover exerted a powerful influence upon the politics of evangelical conservatism.
Hoover constantly told his agents the FBI had a “Christian purpose…to defend and perpetuate the dignity of the Nation’s Christian endowment.” Or as he told agents after one spiritual retreat, the fight for the soul and security of the nation was “a fight which we cannot lose, since God is on our side.” All of this becomes a part of what it means to fall in line in the bureau. Under Hoover, all of the bureau’s labor—from illegal surveillance and break-ins to lying under oath—was God’s labor.
JT: Much of the focus and recent work about Hoover focuses on his overwhelming power, his blackmailing, his personal psychology. How does your work get us to move in a different direction?
LM: It’s important to point out that Hoover’s FBI was not rogue. Nobody in this country can be considered rogue and outside of the mainstream and crazy and remain in office for almost forty-eight years. Hoover’s FBI had help and tremendous support. Robert F. Kennedy signed the memo approving the surveillance of King. President Kennedy and President Johnson both received constant briefings on the bureau’s counterintelligence. Journalists, too, illegally received bureau briefings on King’s surveillance. Ministers like Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux laundered FBI intel. Publications such as Christianity Today enthusiastically supported Hoover and his FBI. Public opinion polls from the Washington Post and Gallup pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Americans sided with Hoover over King. This campaign was one that was endemic to the nation. Hoover was America and America was—and in some ways still is—J. Edgar Hoover.
JT: Your book shows how this public support was bolstered especially during the Cold War. What energies and political currents was Hoover seizing upon?
LM: Hoover’s commitment to white Christian nationalism preceded the Cold War. But the Cold War provided fertile ground for his racist religious commitments. At the time, America was concerned about its ideological battle with communism and Russia coming out of World War II. And the FBI was considered America’s front guard to protect the nation in this fight—the first line of defense against an existential threat. The bureau was perfectly set up to allow Hoover to dispense all types of opinions and commentary as actual policy: this is what America needs to do to remain safe and this is what America needs to do to win the war against communism. It gave him a unique seat of authority with a direct line to the ear of the American public.
And under Hoover’s watch, anyone who disagreed with him is not seen as disagreeing based on legitimate policy differences. They are labeled enemies of the state and deemed to be going against anything that will keep America safe. So what normally would be robust debate and conversation in a functioning democracy became an us versus them: you are an existential threat to the nation if you disagree with me. And in that context, Hoover was a master of operating.
JT: You also argue that Hoover’s Christianity allows him to make a lot of partners, some of whom are Black clergy. In the book, we see the wide array of support he gets from various Black evangelicals and other Black informants. How does Hoover capture this support?
LM: Evangelicalism has often been thought of as solely as a white phenomenon. But there are African American evangelicals: there’s a National Black Evangelical Association, for example, that’s still in existence.
Hoover was able to tap into the idea that everything that ails the nation can be solved by individual conversions—that if we just get people committed to Jesus Christ, for example, all this stuff about racism, all this stuff about poverty, will cease. Because of that, Hoover earned a number of African American evangelical supporters, one of whom is Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a very popular Black religious broadcaster of the day in D.C. He broadcast over CBS Radio all around the country, and at times, the globe. He had his own television show beginning in the 1940s. He was one of the first preachers, Black or white, to have their own TV show named after them. Michaux believed in the gospel that Hoover preached. The two had a large amount of correspondence, which I was able to comb through, which showed how they coordinated to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr.
The FBI would first give Michaux “intelligence” and “counterintelligence” on King. Michaux would then launder that for them by putting it in his sermons. Over the airways, he was able to provide cover for the FBI: now, it’s not the FBI who says King is a communist, or King is faking, or King’s clerical bona fides are not real. The bureau was able to point to an African American minister who’s saying the same thing. And this became proof that King is a problem: Michaux even sent some of these sermons to the Kennedy White House. The FBI was able to work with him in a very explicit ways to use his popularity and his Blackness to authenticate their claims against King, Jr. For example, in 1965 Elder Michaux teamed up with the FBI to organize a protest against Martin Luther King, Jr. in Baltimore following the Selma to Montgomery march. He claimed that he had evidence that MLK was a communist “termite” determined to destroy America from the inside.
JT: Part of what your book also gets us to see is how Hoover sees and treats King as a distinctly Christian threat.
LM: To Hoover, King’s Christianity called into question America’s commitment to being “the land of the free.” In the ‘60s, King began to expose the country’s hypocrisy abroad to the globe for all to see. And instead of the FBI seeing the hypocrisy as a problem, King and others like him get seen as the problem for exposing it. To this end, MLK is seen as a heretic.
Hoover believed American democracy rested upon a foundation of Christian faith. American societal structures were God-ordained. Those who claimed marginalization had simply failed to live up to God’s standards. King, on the other hand, exposed America’s structural sins. Hoover perceived King’s calls for structural change as a fight against God. Therefore, the FBI concluded, King was at best a clergyman who was unwittingly being used by communists and revolutionaries, or worse, a communist in clerical garb. Either way, MLK was preaching a false gospel.
JT: To me it’s not only white Christian nationalism. It’s sort of a white Christian capitalism that the bureau is adopting: and maybe you can’t really separate the Christianity from the capitalism in terms of the threat the bureau saw in King.
LM: King did indeed challenge U.S. capitalism. And as your own work points out, Jeanne, when King was talking about gaining access to places of consumption—for Black people to have the right to spend money in more places—the United States was okay with that. It benefited them. It created a larger Black middle class. The thinking was: if they want to spend money, they should be able to spend money wherever they want. But King then starts to raise concerns about how capitalism is continually making people poor and impoverished in a very rich nation. He called for things that were seen as radical and are still seen as radical today: namely, a universal basic income and a broader social safety net.
This was a huge challenge to the idea of the bootstrapped, individualistic, capitalist way of doing things. As Sarah Hammond’s God’s Businessmen (2017) points out, corporations and evangelical conservatives pushed the idea that free market capitalism was an economic expression of Christian free will and the heart of what it meant to be an American. As MLK challenged this, many people, especially the FBI, saw it as a threat to America’s foundation because in the midst of the Cold War any challenges to unfettered capitalism were labeled communist-inspired.
JT: When James Comey was the FBI director, he proudly kept the King memo in his office allegedly to acknowledge the agency’s overreach and past mistakes. Both of us question the value of that gesture. Why is this not the way to learn from this history?
LM: I remember watching the 60 Minutes episode with Comey when he talked about having that copy of that memo placed underneath his desk to remind him of the FBI’s past sins. He talks about a training module in which new agents visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C., take down some of the quotes, and then go back and study them and discuss them. And an MLK quote— “The time is always right to do what is right”— is etched in stone at the FBI’s main training facility in Quantico, VA. These moments provide an example of—to borrow a phrase of yours—history as a way of providing comfort, but not caution. It comforted the FBI, and the American public. It said, “Hey, look, we’ve learned from our history, and we acknowledge it.” But I don’t think it was used as caution: as a warning about what could happen if the FBI does not truly reckon with its past.
And to do that you’d have to understand that King was considered radical. He was not the saint that he has been made into today. You would need to understand that at the time, King was being surveilled because he posed a threat to the political order of things. He was an enemy of the FBI. To use this history to provide caution would require the FBI to reflect on its practices of surveilling people it considers as posing a grave threat to national security. Acknowledging its true aims—to mount a coordinated campaign against an enemy—is a far more difficult task than simply apologizing for its treatment of someone we now consider a hero. Because back then, he wasn’t.
You won’t learn that from studying King’s quote at the monument that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These are beautiful quotes, but if you’re really going to learn from history, agents need to understand King in context. If agents were to read King’s Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and Where Do We Go from Here (1967), books where King is fundamentally challenging the American status quo, particularly on racism, poverty, and war, they would understand why the FBI chose to launch a counterintelligence campaign against him.
The lessons of history would call for a true examination of how the FBI engages current progressive movements that call for change. Without that, it’s simply a field trip to a beautiful monument in D.C.
JT: Part of your work is getting us to ask the question: who do we see as dangerous today and how are we treating them? Because at the same time that Comey has the nice framed document in his office, fifteen thousand paid FBI informants are surveilling Muslim communities; acting much like they did during COINTELPRO in the ‘60s but on an even broader scale.
LM: If we put the question this way, we can see that the bureau has not really learned from that moment. Much of the rhetoric resembles Hoover’s communism rhetoric. The bureau’s 2017 intelligence assessment of “Black Identity Extremists” is an example. The FBI, with no evidence, created the term. Black Identity Extremists were described as African Americans, motivated by “perceived” police brutality and anti-Black racism, who developed a Black religious ideology to commit terroristic acts. The reasoning is shockingly similar to the FBI’s reasoning to surveil MLK.
JT: At moments, particularly during the Trump presidency, we saw people who should have known better embracing the FBI as the good guys. We’ve seen the support of most Democrats for increasing the funding and power of the FBI.
LM: I think my book came out, for some, at an inopportune time, because all of a sudden, many folks who would consider themselves political liberals were rooting for the FBI as the good guys during the Trump moment. And my book was inconvenient because it pointed out that the FBI has been and remains complicit in the scourge that is white Christian nationalism.
To be clear, after Hoover passed away in 1972, there are some changes. Two women—one a former nun, the other a marine—joined in 1972. African Americans joined in larger numbers. And standards loosened. Certain haircuts were no longer required, facial hair was allowed, and agents were no longer restricted to white shirts. But the FBI is still operating out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which was finished after his death. And I think it provides a great metaphor: Hoover’s ghost is still very much so in the bureau. And one of the things about ghosts is that they’re nowhere and everywhere at the same time. We see that in the FBI.
For one, the worship services continued. After Hoover’s death, Pat Robertson became a favorite at the FBI, preaching twice for the FBI worship service. In the 2000s, the FBI invited the Westboro Baptist Church to new agent training. And in 2017 Terry Albury, an African American FBI agent, was arrested for linking intel to the press detailing the FBI’s internal racism and targeting of Muslims. Part of what he testified to was not just what was happening to Muslim Americans and how they were being treated by the bureau, but also how he was being treated within the FBI because he was an African American. And this is a long-held pattern. Since the 1980s there have been at least three racial discrimination law suits filed by Black and Latino agents of color. In 2019 women special agents and recruits sued the bureau for gender discrimination.
And the bureau still has not caught up to the white terrorist threat. In 2022 the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs issued a report on the rise of domestic terrorism. “White supremacist extremists,” it wrote, “pose the primary threat among all domestic violent extremists.” But the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, it concluded, had not adequately aligned their resources to meet this threat. And I think that speaks perfectly to what we’re talking about. The bureau still struggles with seeing white supremacist violence as domestic terrorism or as the top domestic threat, despite the facts to the contrary. Even though the data says so, the resources within the bureau have not adjusted accordingly. It’s still focused on people of color, antiracist movements, and Muslim religious communities. Hoover’s ghost, America’s ghost, remains.
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