In 2017, the National Archives released a new trove of FBI files in response to a Freedom of Information Act request I made. The security-screened documents reveal how the bureau solicited and received sacred assistance in their crusade to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. The FBI’s efforts to destroy King’s reputation are well known, but less known is how the bureau colluded with Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, then a widely successful black radio preacher and televangelist, in their campaign against King. Michaux coordinated with the FBI to protest King and to preach sermons that laundered the bureau’s counterintelligence against the civil rights icon. As the nation marks 50 years since the untimely assassination of King, the revelation prompts a time of reflection for the televangelists that comprise President Trump’s evangelical advisory board specifically, and people of faith more broadly.
Michaux was one of the nation’s leading clergymen from the beginning of his national CBS radio show in 1929 until his death in 1968. He became the nation’s first minister—black or white—to have his own weekly television show beginning in 1947. With little formal education, the leader of the non-denominational Church of God utilized his radio and later television fame to become an insider at the White House. He offered invocations for President Franklin Roosevelt at public events. The Roosevelt administration in turn granted him a large loan to construct segregated public housing in Washington, D.C. At the time, it was the largest loan ever given to an African American organization. He was also a favorite of President Harry Truman, visiting the White House several times, and even introducing Truman to black luminaries such as heavyweight boxing champion Jersey Joe Walcott. Michaux was also one of the most frequent black guests at the White House under President Dwight Eisenhower. However, his closest relationship in the executive branch was with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The two began corresponding in 1939 and they became quick friends. Hoover, a Sunday school teacher and trustee of the National Presbyterian Church in D.C., was a fan of Michaux’s television ministry. “Whenever I am home,” he wrote to Michaux, “I always endeavor to follow you on television. … I think that you have been making a very fine contribution.” The admiration was mutual, with Michaux seeing Hoover as “a minister of God” and his FBI as “second in importance only to the church.” They shared the belief that America was a Christian nation whose democracy could be perfected through individual Christian salvation, not the restructuring of prevailing social, political, or economic arrangements. There was nothing plaguing America’s perceived Christian democracy—not racism, poverty, nor communism—that a spiritual awakening could not fix. This belief set both men on a collision course with King and his religious calls for the restructuring of America’s racial and economic status quo.
In an FBI memo following the historic March on Washington, the FBI labeled King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” and the nation’s top domestic security risk. The bureau had no evidence that King was a communist; in fact, the FBI concluded King and the civil rights movement he led were too religious to be influenced by communism. Contrary to the evidence, though, Hoover persisted in believing King had fallen under the influence of godless communism. King was leading the nation “in a form of racial revolution,” so he had to be stopped. On the same day the memo was drafted, the FBI sought Michaux’s help. The evangelist immediately launched a coordinated public critique against King and the gospel the civil rights minister preached. Michaux preached a radio sermon from the nation’s capital on CBS Standard and FM radio affiliates. The homily opposed the March on Washington and King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Michaux used the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Luke as his sermon text, proclaiming that King’s dream of racial equality would only materialize when God’s rule was established in the hearts of men. “Yes, righteousness will flow like a mighty stream,” Michaux said, quoting King. However, he qualified, it would only happen “when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—but not until then according to God’s Word.” Advocating for legislative change was futile, according to Michaux; changing hearts was the only way to bring about racial equality. He closed the sermon by telling his listeners to cease marching and simply “seek to do the will of God and be blessed.” It was one thing to hear this from white evangelists like Billy Graham, but it was a weightier matter to hear it from a pioneering black cleric.
Michaux and the bureau also targeted the White House with the sermon. It was transcribed and sent to President John F. Kennedy. “I felt that you would like to know the opinion more or less of those who reach the ears of the Public on such a vital subject,” Michaux wrote to the president. King’s star was rising, but Michaux reminded Kennedy that he was America’s preeminent black cleric. The bureau and Michaux wanted the president to see that King’s gospel was false and was not representative of the majority of the nation’s Christians, even black Protestants. Michaux’s sermon stirred a pot that was already boiling within the administration. Two weeks later, a concerned Attorney General Robert Kennedy finally relented and granted the FBI a long-awaited gift: permission to conduct technical surveillance on King. The president’s brother authorized the FBI to wiretap King’s home “or at any future address to which he may move.”
The FBI returned to this wellspring of cooperation with Michaux when Hoover and King had a public spat. King accused the bureau of being a tool of white supremacy, noting, “If an FBI man agrees with segregation, he can’t honestly and objectively investigate.” Hoover responded in kind. During a press conference, the FBI chief stated that King was no minister or righteous spokesman. He was actually “the most notorious liar in the United States” and “one of the lowest characters in the country.” The bureau then requested a meeting with Michaux and concocted a plan to authenticate the boss’s claims. The FBI provided Michaux with two documents meant for bureau employees only: an internal monograph on civil rights and a flattering catalogue of FBI “accomplishments in the field of civil rights.” Michaux simply copied the FBI’s confidential information and inserted it an open letter to King, original spelling errors and all. Michaux released to newswire services the four-page letter, instructing the civil rights leader to apologize to Hoover and the FBI.
The release of the open letter was coordinated with the distribution of the bureau’s “strictly confidential” report on King’s “immoral” personal conduct to a critical mass of politicos and government agencies, including the White House. Michaux’s dispatch served to buttress the bureau’s two-page report on King. For good measure, the preacher followed up the open letter with a sermon. He told hundreds of worshippers, as well as journalists and thousands of broadcast listeners, that the “breach” between Hoover and King was King’s fault, and the rift possessed cosmic implications. King’s recalcitrance opened “an avenue through which the Communists can infiltrate this country” and all black citizens would be blamed as the “avenue” of communist infiltration and exploitation. Michaux warned: “This thing can cause the Negro in America to be put back 100 years.” The following day, on January 4, 1965, Hoover thanked Michaux for the sermon. “I read the account of your sermon for January 3rd as reported by the Washington Post and Times Herald, and want to take this opportunity to thank you for your support of my administration of the FBI,” Hoover wrote in a letter. “Your straightforward remarks concerning this Bureau’s role in civil rights matters are a source of encouragement.” Nothing was more encouraging than having the national press parrot the bureau’s own views under the guise of a minister. Hoover closed his thank-you note: “You may be assured my associates join me in expressing appreciation.”
Michaux and the bureau continued their sacred ambush. On Thursday April 1, 1965, the preacher and more than 100 of his Church of God parishioners converged on Baltimore, Maryland, to launch an FBI-approved protest against King. King and the executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were in the city holding meetings inside the Lord Baltimore Hotel. They were fresh from the triumphant voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. They gathered at the hotel to plan the Summer Community Organizing and Political Education project (SCOPE). The campaign included a voter registration drive across the south and an economic boycott of the state of Alabama. SCOPE aimed to organize and register black voters as well as galvanize support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act as it moved through Congress. The FBI, Michaux, and his followers were opposed to the plan and its advocates.
Having cleared the protests with the FBI, Michaux and his congregation publicly registered this opposition in front of the entrance of the Lord Baltimore Hotel at 10 a.m. The religious protesters made quite the scene. SCLC, one of the foremost black Christian protest organizations in the country, was being confronted with a black Christian protest. The “singing, chanting, marching, and sack-clothed” protesters were equipped with signs displaying various messages including, “God Save America,” according to FBI files. Their sackcloth attire denoted mourning and the dire need for King and the SCLC to repent of their sins, lest God forsake the nation. Michaux distributed press packets seemingly approved by the bureau. A pack of startled white and black journalists hurled questions at Michaux: “Why are you picketing Dr. King?” Michaux told a reporter from The New York Times that a boycott against Alabama manufactured goods would “destroy the progress the Negro has made” and “throw thousands of Negroes in Alabama out of work and into breadlines.” He then told an Afro-American columnist that a boycott “would bring about dissatisfaction among both white and colored people and would hurt the colored people of Alabama.” As protesters paraded signs reading, “Russian Termites,” Michaux announced that King’s radical proposal made clear that the SCLC was riddled with “communist infiltrators” who had turned their back on God. One journalist retorted, “Are you saying, sir, that Dr. King has turned his back on God?” Michaux explained, “Well I say Dr. King has turned his back on the plans that God gave him to lead his people.” Michaux was convinced that King’s plans were doomed, and he could say so confidently with FBI support and protection. Agents from the FBI Civil Rights Division in Baltimore watched from afar to make certain that Michaux and crew were not arrested, hindered, nor removed by hotel security during their protest. They provided Michaux and the protesters with the kind of blessing and protection that the FBI deliberately denied King and his civil rights protesters.
History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs? They do indeed follow in Michaux’s footsteps. African American televangelists like Mark Burns and Darrell Scott (along with white televangelist Paula White and others) traverse the hallowed halls of the White House as political insiders and “advisors” to the president. They have proven to be faithful backers of the executive branch. And, as in the case of Michaux, scholars using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will, one day, be able to determine if these ministers are indeed aiding the executive branch in any nefarious activities that hinder justice and racial equality.
It seems clear already that the executive branch, via the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI, are overseeing investigations that disproportionately focus on African Americans. Despite the rise of white nationalist domestic terrorism, a leaked FBI memo noted that the bureau is focused on a category of domestic terrorists they dubbed “Black Identity Extremists (BIE),” a supposedly wide-spread historic movement dating back to the civil rights movement. BIE, according to the bureau, are motivated by religious belief to commit acts of state terrorism in response to the “perception” that African Americans are the victims of “institutionalized oppression.” The memo was received with great controversy and outrage. One retired FBI agent relayed to me that BIE was an imaginary term, created by the FBI simply to provide cover and authorization for the executive branch’s actions and policies against non-violent black demonstrators. The bureau’s positing of BIE provides the DOJ and FBI justification to continue to surveil, harass, and discredit African Americans who are peaceably exercising their First Amendment right to protest racial inequality.
Are Rev. Burns and Rev. Scott positioned simply to justify and sanctify such policies? The Rev. A.R. Bernard left the evangelical advisory board when it became clear that the executive branch was not interested in his advice and political counsel, but rather only in his black evangelical endorsement of executive branch policy. Burns and Scott remain. One day the FOIA will bear full witness to their activities.
As we mark 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, perhaps Elder Michaux can serve as a tool of ethical and theological reflection. Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, along with other faith leaders aligned with Trump, will surely continue to praise King and his gospel labors on behalf of racial equality and the poor and disadvantaged, those Jesus called “the least of these.” Their verbal platitudes will persist in mourning his untimely death. They will exalt his non-violent agitation for racial and economic equality, justice, and peace as a model of Christian ministry and democratic practice. Yet, their actions and political advocacy will be very far from the same. Perhaps their praise of King as their religious forerunner is misguided. Their praise might actually be best reserved for their more likely forebear: Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
Lerone Martin is an associate professor of religion and politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. His upcoming book with Princeton University Press examines the historic relationship between religion and the FBI. An academic version of this article first appeared in the winter issue of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation.