J. Edgar Hoover’s revenge: Information the FBI once hoped could destroy Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been declassified

An article just published by the U.K.-based Standpoint Magazine alleges that civil rights icon Martin Luther King witnessed and even celebrated a woman’s rape.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, one of King’s biographers, the claim relies upon recently declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation documents that summarize tape recordings of King’s extramarital affairs.

The allegation that King witnessed a rape and did not stop it is a serious one. Its impact on how we understand and tell U.S. history, and King’s role in it, is likely to be debated for years.

It’s important to reevaluate King’s legacy in light of this new information.

But as an historian who has done substantial research in FBI files on the black freedom movement, I believe that it’s also important to understand how this information came to be public.

F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, before testifying at a hearing in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 1968. AP/File

Targeting black activism

As director of the FBI from 1924-72, J. Edgar Hoover had an outsized influence on the organization. The FBI operated within the Department of Justice and was tasked with investigating violations of federal law and developing intelligence on foreign agents operating on U.S. soil.

At various points in the 20th century, both Congress and the president instructed the FBI to investigate not just foreign agents but also “radicals” and “subversives.” Hoover interpreted that mandate to also develop what the FBI called “racial intelligence.”

From the 1910s to the 1970s, the FBI treated civil rights activists in general, and African American activists in particular, as either disloyal “subversives” or “dupes” of foreign agents. The FBI’s predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, sought to “compel black loyalty” during World War I and investigate “negro radicalism” in the 1920s.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the FBI amassed 140,000 pages of documents as part of its investigation of what it called “foreign inspired agitation among American Negroes.” That didn’t even include its files on individual black “subversives” such as civil rights activist Ella Baker, the renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and the singer and actor Paul Robeson.

And from the late 1930s through the 1970s, the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, through official reports like “The American Negro and the Communist Party,” popularized the notion among conservatives that communists were always trying to use the struggle against racial segregation as a “front” for the “subversion” of individual American liberty.

Focus on King

As Martin Luther King ascended in prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was inevitable that the FBI would investigate him, like it did every other civil rights movement activist, for what it called “communist influence in racial matters.”

King did consult with former members of the Communist Party, among many others. One of his advisers – Stanley Levison – maintained closer ties to the party than he admitted to King, and the FBI knew it.

But it was the civil rights movement’s growing influence that inspired Hoover to become increasingly alarmed about these connections.

Two days after King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, William Sullivan, the FBI’s director of intelligence, famously responded by writing, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”

In late 1963, FBI leaders met to discuss ways of “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader and developing evidence concerning King’s continued dependence on communists for guidance and direction.”

One of those ways for “developing evidence” involved bugging hotel rooms and other places to record King’s conversations with colleagues.

The recordings did not provide evidence of “communist influence” on the civil rights movement. Instead, they recorded King’s extramarital affairs. FBI officials, who already planned to “neutralize” King before they recorded his infidelities, shifted the rationale for their campaign to “morality” without missing a beat.