The day before Martin Luther King Jr Day, Mr Kennedy told Politico that his father, then-attorney general Robert F Kennedy, and his uncle, then-president John F Kennedy, allowed the FBI to listen in on King because they were “making big bets on King, particularly in organising the March on Washington”.
“They were betting not only the civil rights movement but their own careers,” he continued.
Mr Kennedy said that his family knew that FBI director J Edgar Hoover “was out to ruin King” and that Hoover told the Kennedys that the civil rights leader had ties to communism: “My father gave permission to Hoover to wiretap them so he could prove that his suspicions about King were either right or wrong.”
“I think, politically, they had to do it,” the 2024 candidate said.
Despite acknowledging that his family understood Hoover to be “a racist” and “left no doubt where he stood on” civil rights, he contested that president Kennedy would have fired Hoover in his second term, had he survived to see it. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Mr Kennedy also told the outlet that he believed his uncle had privately warned King about the wiretaps.
While the FBI became wary of King in the mid-1950s in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, it wasn’t until 1963 that the FBI began to eavesdrop on the civil rights leader’s home and offices, with permission from the Kennedy administration, according to the Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute at Stanford. The FBI said it was investigating King’s adviser’s ties to the Communist party, but ultimately, no evidence of that was ever found.
A Senate select committee found in 1976 that the agency’s probe into King appeared to have “centered almost entirely on discussions among Dr King and his advisers about proposed civil rights activities rather than on whether those advisers were, in fact, agents of the Communist Party”.
The panel also wrote that rather than trying to “discredit alleged communists” working with King, “the Bureau adopted the curious tactic of trying to discredit the supposed target of Communist Party interest, Dr King himself.”