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FEDERAL OFFICIALS DISSEMINATED TO "COOPERATIVE NEWS sources" a blind memorandum stating that the "result of King's famous espousal of nonviolence was vandalism, looting and riot." The lapse from nonviolent discipline in Memphis freed the FBI from the inhibitions that the public's respect for King's conduct if not his message had imposed, and opened the way for character assassination on all fronts. By the next day, March 29, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover approved a second effort "to publicize hypocrisy on the part of Martin Luther King." The document whiplashed him as cowardly and violent, servile and uppity. "Like Judas leading lambs to slaughter," Hoover confidentially advised news contacts, "King led the marchers to violence, and when the violence broke out, King disappeared." A gossipy addition highlighted the place of refuge. "The fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis is owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes," stated the propaganda sheet, but King had chosen instead "the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated and almost exclusively white patronized." By April 2, Hoover formally requested permission to reinstall wiretaps at SCLC. Two days later, the Mississippi FBI office sent headquarters a two-pronged counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, proposal, first, to breed confusion and resentment on King's poverty tours by spreading false information about whether he or surrogates would appear at scheduled rallies, and second, to undermine his image by distributing leaflets skewering King as a fancy dresser who deserted his people. The combination would "discredit King and his aides with poor Negroes who he is seeking support from," argued Mississippi, but the bureau would not have time to act on the plan.
INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH
Back in Atlanta, an emergency meeting of SCLC leaders was convened to discuss the Memphis riot. Criticisms were hurled at King, and he was urged to abandon the sanitation strikers.
KING ABSORBED THE RAW SPEECHES MILDLY, AS WAS HIS custom, then rose from a wooden Sunday school table to argue that they all underestimated their problem. "We are in serious trouble," he said. The Memphis riot had discredited nonviolent tenets at the heart of their movement. If they simply abandoned the garbage strike, a presumption of violence would follow them to the national stage with greatly magnified risk and opposition. Therefore, said King, he felt by no means committed to either Memphis or Washington--regardless of what he told the press--unless first convinced that they could restore the integrity of nonviolent protest. This was a staff decision, because he could not do it alone. "Memphis is the Washington campaign in miniature," he said.