1964 August 25

FBI Spies on Civil Rights Groups at President Johnson’s Order


On this day, the FBI submitted the first reports to President Lyndon Johnson for the spying on civil rights activists at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention, which he had ordered.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) (April 26, 1964) sent a racially integrated delegation to the convention and demanded that it be seated rather than the “official” delegation, which was all-white and committed to racial segregation. See the dramatic testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the MFDP, at the convention. on August 22, 1964. Johnson did not want any disruptions by the party to spoil his re-nomination for president. The FBI actions included wiretapping, the planting of informants among civil rights activists, and FBI agents posing as journalists. In submitting its reports, the FBI was careful to point out that these were the reports he had requested.

This event dramatized LBJ’s very mixed record on domestic spying. On the one hand, he was the one president in modern times who had very strong feelings against wiretapping by federal agencies, and on two occasions ordered it stopped unless there was Justice Department approval (June 30, 1965; June 16, 1967). He also proposed a federal law to prohibit wiretapping (although not in national security cases), but Congress passed the first federal law authorizing it on June 19, 1968. At the same time, he was well aware of wiretapping by the FBI, including the spying of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and enjoyed reading the FBI files on political figures.

Learn more about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: http://www.crmvet.org/docs/ccdocs.htm

Learn more about LBJ’s mixed record on the FBI and domestic spying: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

Learn more: Athan Theoharis, The FBI & American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)

Listen to LBJ’s White House phone conversations on civil rights and the Democratic Party Convention: http://presidentialrecordings.rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/search?q=series%3A%22Civil%20Rights%22&start=1

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