In a Remarkably Poignant Letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. Is Humbled That People Care About His Safety

"While I hardly feel this necessary most of the time, it is both comforting and humbling to know that there are persons who are so concerned about my welfare," he tells a white Philadelphia policeman who was worried that King was in danger

Key Facts

  • Unpublished and the only letter of King that we can recall seeing that directly related to his personal safety and security

The FBI files on Dr. King record scores of reported threats against his life, and the total including threats not recorded by the FBI would have run into the hundreds or more. Many were menacing but harmless. Yet in some cases, the attempts were far from innocuous.

Some of the attempts on King's life are well known. In January 1956 King's home was bombed in the midst of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott that he was leading. Luckily nobody was hurt. In 1958 the Alabama Klan put out a contract on him, but the FBI ran a sting on this that foiled it in advance. In September of that year, however, King was stabbed by a deranged woman in Harlem. He was taken to Harlem Hospital, where a surgeon operated on him successfully. In the spring of 1963, a large dynamite bomb was thrown at a room at the Gaston Motel where King had set up the headquarters for his efforts to integrate Birmingham's eateries and businesses. King narrowly escaped death, as he had unexpectedly abandoned plans for a celebration at the motel and left Birmingham. In early 1964 there was a plot against King in Alabama, but he was called away from there by an act of violence in Saint Augustine, Florida. A suspected group of Klansmen opened fire on King's rented beach cottage near Saint Augustine, perforating walls and shattering the furniture inside with their bullets. But King had been warned of plots against his life in Florida and left for California. In 1964-5 various Klan groups in the South plotted to kill King but failed. In 1965 a white supremacist in Los Angeles armed with dynamite and guns threatened to kill King but was foiled.  In June 1965 some men planned to shoot King when he was set to speak at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Thus, King faced threats in the North as well as the South. In 1966 the White Knights of the Klan decided to lure King to a "kill zone" in Mississippi, and when that failed, they offered a bounty on him in 1967. In April 3, 1968, on his way to Memphis, there was a bomb scare on his plane. He was murdered the next day. Indeed, from the time of that first bombing in 1956 until his assassination in 1968, law enforcement investigated many serious threats against King, some foiled only by the vagaries of chance.

King was aware of some of these threats and surely suspected that there were many more unreported threats than reported ones. Anyone in his position would have some degree of fear. But courage means doing something even though you are afraid, and clearly King had great courage. When asked a question about when he had personally been most concerned, King replied that it had been during a visit to Mississippi to mourn the victims of the Mississippi Burning murders, the brutal slayings of three young civil rights workers. King offered a prayer in which he had said, "O Lord, the killers of those boys may even be within the range of my voice." At that moment, he overheard a big burly sheriff standing near him say, "You're damn right they are."

However, in a larger sense, these ongoing public threats simply constituted a constant level of "noise"; Dr. King had no choice but to live with them if he wanted to continue his mission. And that he would do no matter what. We see in the following letter that his solution to this pressure, anxiety and uncertainty was to adopt an attitude of considering the mass of threats empty and pushing them out of mind, while acknowledging that some could be dangerous.

Typed letter signed, on his Southern Christian Leadership Conference letterhead, May 21, 1965, to Serg. James Adair, a white Philadelphia policeman who had been assigned to protect King on a visit to Pennsylvania and shown concern for his safety. "Let me express my sincere appreciation for the time and effort which you spent in providing both protection and traffic accompaniment for myself and the members of my party. While I hardly feel this necessary most of the time, it is both comforting and humbling to know that there are persons who are so concerned about my welfare." This letter was obtained from the descendants of Sgt. Adair and is here offered for the first time. It is the only letter of King that we can recall seeing that directly related to his personal safety and security.