Their one and only meeting lasted barely a minute. On March 26, 1964, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X came to Washington to observe the beginning of the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. They shook hands. They smiled for the cameras. As they parted, Malcolm said jokingly, “Now you’re going to get investigated.”
That, of course, was well underway. Ever since Attorney General Robert Kennedy had approved FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request in October 1963, King had been the target of extraordinary wiretapping sanctioned by his own government. By this point, five months later, the taps were overflowing with data from King’s home, his office, and the hotel rooms where he stayed.
The data the FBI mined—initially about King’s associations with Communists and later about his sexual life—was used in an attempt to, depending on your point of view, protect the country or destroy the civil rights leader. Hoover and his associates tried to get “highlights” to the press, the president, even Pope Paul VI. So pervasive was this effort that it extended all the way to the small campus in Western Massachusetts, Springfield College, where I have taught journalism for the past 15 years.