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Editor’s note: This article was originally published Jan. 14, 2016. Carolina Public Press is reposting it today in honor of Martin Luther King Day.
As Martin Luther King Day — Jan. 18 in 2016 — celebrates 86 years since the civil rights leader’s birth, FBI files reveal much about King’s brief but weighty times here, including parts of the bureau’s campaign to monitor and discredit him.
King visited Western North Carolina at two key moments in the civil rights movement, for a strategic retreat at Black Mountain in 1964 and a groundbreaking sermon in Montreat in 1965.
During both appearances, the FBI was hot on King’s trail, according to declassified FBI files collected by Carolina Public Press from several archives and published below.
The records show that even as the bureau’s leadership, including and especially Director J. Edgar Hoover, was striving to snuff out King’s influence, the FBI recorded and responded to other threats against him.
Black Mountain, 1964: A rare respite and crucial strategy session
Hoover’s hatred of King led to extraordinary levels of FBI surveillance and attempted disruption of King’s efforts on the civil rights front, but the bureau’s leadership tried to hide its hand.
At a Dec. 23, 1963, meeting, top FBI officials decided to infiltrate King’s inner circle while taking a “discreet approach” to gathering info that could be used “at an opportune time in a counterintelligence move to discredit him,” FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan noted in recap of the meeting.
Subsequent directives to FBI field offices told them to shadow King whenever possible while doing nothing so intrusive as to expose and embarrass the bureau.
At the same time, King was preparing for a strategy meeting with 20 or so of his top aides at an Episcopal Church-owned estate in Black Mountain, where they would retreat to plot the future of the civil rights movement, and the FBI was already on his case.
In a Dec. 18 memo, the FBI’s New York City office reported its latest findings from a confidential informant, including that King was planning the retreat at “a place near Asheville.” According to the informant, King said the meeting would include some recreation but mostly be focused on “where do we go from here.”
The plan was to start the retreat on Jan. 6, 1964, a date that was later adjusted forward a couple of weeks, as the FBI noted in its continuing coverage of King’s planned summit.
The retreat was shifted to Jan. 20-22 after King and his top aides were invited to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House on Jan. 18. Fresh from that Oval Office experience, King and crew went to Black Mountain to decide their next steps, with the FBI watchful but increasingly wary of exposing its operations against the civil rights leader.
In advance of King’s visit, the FBI sent agents to scope out the Black Mountain estate, In-the-Oaks (which today is owned by Montreat College), according to a detailed memo in the FBI’s file. The agents reported to headquarters that they’d recruited a local source to report on upcoming gatherings at the estate.
The bureau’s New York, Atlanta and Charlotte field offices — the ones that could offer the most intelligence on King’s Black Mountain retreat — received a contradictory directive from FBI headquarters 10 days before the visit.
“Because of the extremely discreet nature of the Bureau’s inquiry to date concerning Martin Luther King, Jr., and because the retreat may involve the legitimate activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King’s main group pushing for civil rights), no coverage whatsoever of the retreat is desired,” a memo from Hoover said on Jan. 10.
“Of course,” the memo continued, “if any of the receiving offices should receive information, particularly through sensitive sources available to Atlanta and New York (where the FBI stations were wiretapping King’s phones and had informants), concerning activities taking place at the retreat, the Bureau and interested offices should be advised.”
On Jan. 16, Hoover reminded the FBI’s office in Atlanta, King’s hometown, to provide a roster of all individuals it thought would attend the Black Mountain meeting. But despite its extensive efforts, the FBI doesn’t appear to have gathered much information about what King and his confidants did and talked about at Black Mountain, according to the released records (several pages of the bureau’s documents from King’s file during this time period remain classified).
One confidential source vaguely reported that “at the meeting they discussed the accomplishments (in the civil rights movement) for 1963, and the program for 1964,” the FBI’s New York office said in its post-meeting summary.
As the retreat ended, the FBI had a new reason to add to its file on King: A bomb threat grounded the plane that was to take King home to Atlanta.
As the FBI noted, a thorough search of the plane found no explosives, and after a delay, the flight took off.
While waiting on the tarmac of Asheville’s airport, one of King’s aides would later recall, King said he saw the threat as a sign of his likely demise. “I’ve told you all that I don’t expect to survive this revolution; this society’s too sick,” he said, according to his staffer Dorothy Cotton. “I’m just being realistic.”
Montreat, 1965: A call for global nonviolence met by local threats
The next time King came to WNC, death threats preceded him, as the FBI duly noted.
King was the keynote speaker at a Presbyterian conference at Montreat in August 1965. In his sermon, he made one of his first public critiques of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, calling on religious leaders to oppose violence against foreigners abroad while doing the same with black leaders at home.
According to the FBI documents, local law enforcement was closely watching threats that came in against King. With a high security presence at Montreat, King came and went without incident.
FBI files on King in WNC
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