Allegations of Communist influence in the civil rights movement were widely publicized in the summer of 1963 by opponents of the administration's proposed public accommodations bill. On July 12, 1963, Governor Ross E. Barnett of Mississippi testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that civil rights legislation was "a part of the world Communist conspiracy to divide and conquer our country from within." Barnett displayed a photograph entitled "Martin Luther King at Communist Training School" taken by an informant for the Georgia Commission of Education, which showed Dr. King at a 1957 Labor Day Weekend seminar at the Highland Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee with three individuals whom he alleged were communists. When Senator Mike Monroney challenged the accuracy of this characterization, Barnett stated that he had not checked the allegations with the FBI and suggested that the Commerce Committee do so. The FBI subsequently concluded that the charges were false.
Later that day, Senator Monroney asked Director Hoover for his views on whether Dr. King and the leaders of other civil rights organizations had Communist affiliations. Senator Warren G. Magnuson also asked Hoover about the authenticity of the photograph, the status of the Georgia Commission on Education, and the nature of the Highlander Folk School. Director Hoover forwarded these requests and similar inquiries from other Senators to the Justice Department with a memorandum summarizing the COMINFIL* information about SCL [sic]:In substance, the Communist Party, USA, is not able to assume a role of leadership in the racial unrest at this time. However, the Party is attempting to exploit the current racial situation through propaganda and participation in demonstrations and other activities whenever possible. Through these tactics, the Party hopes ultimately to progress from its current supporting role to a position of active leadership. [Emphasis added.]In the same memorandum, Director Hoover brought up the subject of Advisers A and B's alleged Communist affiliations.** He claimed that the Communist Party had pinned its hopes on Adviser A, and that although Adviser B had resigned from the SCLC, he continued to associate with Dr. King.
On July 15, Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in opposition to the Civil Rights bill, berating officials for "fawning and pawing over such people as Martin Luther King and his pro Communist friends and associates." Wallace referred to the picture displayed by Governor Barnett three days before and added:Recently Martin Luther King publicly professed to have fired a known Communist, [Adviser B], who had been on his payroll. But as discovered by a member of the US Congress, the public profession was a lie, and Adviser B had remained on King's payroll.On July 17, the President announced at a news conference:We have no evidence that any of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States are Communists. We have no evidence that the demonstrations are Communist-inspired. There may be occasions when a Communist takes part in a demonstration. We can't prevent that. But I think it is a convenient scapegoat to suggest that all of the difficulties are Communist and that if the Communist movement would only disappear that we would end this.On July 23, Robert Kennedy sent to the Commerce Committee the Justice Department's response to the queries of Senators Monroney and Magnuson:Based on all available evidence from the FBI and other sources, we have no evidence that any of the top leaders of the major civil rights groups are Communists, or Communist controlled. This is true as to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom particular accusations were made, as well as other leaders.Burke Marshall, who aided in formulating these responses for the Justice Department, told the Committee that rumors of communist infiltration in the civil rights movement had caused the Administration considerable concern.
It is natural and inevitable that Communists have made efforts to infiltrate the civil rights groups and to exploit the current racial situation. In view of the real injustices that exist and the resentment against them, these efforts have been remarkably unsuccessful.
At that point, in some sense the business was a political problem, not from the point of view of the support that the civil rights movement was giving the administration or anything like that, but how to be honest with the Senators with this problem facing us and at the same time not to give ammunition to people who for substantive reasons were opposed to civil rights legislation.
Generally, for years the civil rights movement in the South and to some extent in some quarters in the North ... were constantly referred to as communist infiltrated, communist inspired, radical movements ... So that the political problem that I would identify with this whole situation would be that and not a question of whether or not there was support given the Administration by civil rights groups in the South.
(UNITED STATES SENATE, SUPPLEMENTARY DETAILED STAFF REPORTS ON INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AND THE RIGHTS OF AMERICANS, BOOK III, FINAL REPORT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEE TO STUDY GOVERNMENTAL OPERATIONS WITH RESPECT TO INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES, DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CASE STUDY, APRIL 23 (under authority of the order of April 14), 1976)
*COMINFIL is how the FBI referred to its "Communist Infiltration" investigations.
**Excerpted here is section III B of the MLK Case Study, linked in the citation, above. The background on Advisers A and B can be found in section III A, available at the same link, above. The red baiting of MLK's advisers has been discussed at length by David Garrow. Stanley Levison, Jack O'Dell and Bayard Rustin were all red baited out of prominent roles in the SCLC (Rustin was also gay baited).