The Surprising Thing The FBI Tried To Convince Martin Luther King Jr. To Do

The FBI infamously had it out for Martin Luther King Jr. According to the FBI records vault, "from 1963 and continuing until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., King was the target of an intensive campaign by the FBI to neutralize him as an effective civil rights leader." The FBI did this largely by trying to discredit him in the eyes of the public, and to do that, they needed dirt on him. The federal agency put wiretaps wherever they knew King would be — including in hotel rooms. They also paid people to spy on him and report back, according to NPR

Per NPR and The Washington Post, the FBI learned that King was a serial adulterer from these wiretaps. Still, those publications and Politico say that's old news. And the level of King's alleged philandering and involvement in adventurous sexual situations is still not really verified. As the BBC reported, the worst allegations — found in FBI documents related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 2017 — are largely summaries of conversations and hearsay amongst those who listened to the wiretaps and not actual transcriptions of what King said on the phone. According to The Washington Post, those tapes aren't slated to be released until January 31, 2027 — if they even exist.

But whatever the FBI thought it knew, it seized on the opportunity to threaten King in an anonymous letter, telling King, "there is only one thing left for you to do" (via Vox).

The FBI seemed to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. kill himself

The letter, published by Vox, was meant to look like it came from a Black person who was seemingly beseeching Martin Luther King Jr. to take his own life or be exposed for "all your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies extending far into the past." The writer of the letter accused King of being a "fraud" and "an evil, abnormal beast" who "could not believe in God and act as you do."  Elsewhere, the writer claimed to have King "on record" talking about his sexual escapades and threatened to make it public saying, "You are done. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation." 

According to New York Times Magazine, King's wife, Coretta, was the one who first opened the letter. She gave it to her husband, who gathered his people around him to figure out how best to proceed. They all decided they thought the threatening letter was from the FBI, and years later, the Senate's Church Committee on intelligence overreach verified that the letter did come as a directive of J. Edgar Hoover. 

The FBI did throw some morsels about King's inappropriate sexual behavior to the press. But per New York Times Magazine, unlike today, the media at the time wasn't as interested in salacious sex-scandal headlines about powerful men. They didn't take the bait, and neither did King.