Two MLK Scholars Discuss Explosive, Disputed FBI Files on the Civil Rights Icon

Martin Luther King Jr. arrives at the Federal Bureau of Investigation to speak with Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1964.
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The historian and former University of Pittsburgh professor David Garrow won a Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed 1986 biography of Martin Luther King Jr. But in the last few weeks, he has drawn intense criticism from the scholarly community after he published a long article in a conservative British magazine that includes some incendiary claims about the civil-rights icon’s legacy. Sifting through a vast trove of newly released government files on King (a prime target for the FBI in the 1960s), Garrow uncovered what he considers to be some damning revelations — the most disturbing of which involves King encouraging the sexual assault of a woman by a minister in a hotel room. Garrow’s treatment of that claim, which hinges on a single FBI agent’s note, has created a firestorm among historians, many of whom have charged him with academic negligence for presenting such a lurid allegation as near-gospel truth with so little hanging on it. (The piece’s provocative headline, “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King,” didn’t help, nor did its placement next to an editorial calling King “the Harvey Weinstein of the Civil Rights Movement.”) In response to the outcry, Garrow has defended his methods. Intelligencer spoke with him about the reaction to his article and how he thinks King’s legacy has changed.

Intelligencer also spoke with another King expert: Professor Michael Honey, who teaches civil-rights history at the University of Washington Tacoma and wrote the book “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.” Honey took strong issue with Garrow’s framing of the newly discovered file. Both interviews are below.

You’ve gotten a lot of blowback from historians who say you have irresponsibly framed these explosive allegations against Martin Luther King Jr., that there’s no corroborating evidence for them beyond the single handwritten note that you cite from an FBI agent. And, as you’ve made clear, a lot of mainstream outlets turned down your essay for publication. Has any of this reaction and the fact that you had such difficulty placing it given you pause about the way you’ve handled this material?

I have received 100% support from all King scholars and FBI scholars whom I’ve been in touch with. I have not received a single negative, critical, or hostile email from anyone, either at the email I’ve used for coming up on 15 years now, nor at my publicly listed one. The small number of historians who’ve spoken out on social media do not include any King specialists, nor anyone who’s published extensively on the FBI.

So you’ve gotten universal backing from people you consider experts on King.

Yes. I’ve gotten somewhere on the order of probably four dozen commendatory supportive emails from academics who I’ve known over the years: King scholars, FBI experts, legal scholars … You know, much of my life has been spent in legal academia. So I’ve been very pleased. And as I said earlier, I have not received a single negative comment from anyone who personally knows me.

You don’t consider any of the people who have written about this, or been quoted in articles, to be King experts?

From the two or three names I’ve seen, no. One person, I know, was the co-author of a book denouncing Hillary Rodham Clinton as a fake feminist, and has, from what I can see, a book forthcoming praising or commending a convicted police killer, JoAnne Chesimard. That’s been the one I’ve seen two, maybe three times. [Editor’s note: Garrow appears to be referring to Rutgers Associate History Professor Donna Murch, who wrote a critique of him in the Guardian.)

You write in your essay that one of the central reasons you find this account of King’s behavior plausible is that the description of it was recorded by an FBI agent in notes that were never meant to be revealed to the public, so there was little incentive for that to embellish what was going on.

Well, the number one thing to emphasize here is that the tape of that assault still exists. If we did not have the original tape and transcripts of that tape, it would be a much more difficult enterprise to figure out how to value [former FBI official] William Sullivan’s personal file on things. But the same file that contains Sullivan’s annotation of this updated report, that he was working on at the time of Dr. King’s murder — that’s the exact same file from which the suicide letter that Sullivan authored, that the FBI sent to King, comes from. So it’s actually an impeccable source. It’s the personal file of the head of FBI Intelligence in the 1960s. And it was conveyed to the Church Committee, the investigating congressional committee, in the 1970s. And it’s the transmission of that document from the FBI and Sullivan’s personal file to the Church Committee that is memorialized in these documents that were posted. I think it’s important to emphasize that the National Archives made these materials publicly available, and they’re available to anyone with an internet connection.

We know that the FBI was out to destroy King and his reputation …

Let me interject there. This piece breaks a crucially important new ground on exactly that matter. Because up until now, the received version was that Sullivan himself, alone, unbeknown to anyone else, arranged for that package to be sent. Now, with this new material, we know that Sullivan’s immediate boss, the number three person in the FBI, Al Belmont, himself handled the package before it was sent to Dr. King. And Sullivan told the headquarter supervisor who personally mailed it that not only Belmont, but [then-Associate Director] Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover himself all authorized this act. So this ties Hoover, personally, to this incredibly vile act for the very first time. That’s important and newsworthy.

We know that the agency had an agenda. Don’t you think it’s possible that this could have colored an FBI agent’s perceptions to the point that he might have wanted to exaggerate or even make something up, even if it’s in a file that he didn’t think would be revealed to the public?

We also have a public Justice Department report from 1977 from five attorneys in the office of professional responsibility, who listened to the tapes before they were put under court seal, and read the transcripts. And the public-signed report of those five lawyers says that everything that’s in the transcripts is on the tapes. There was also a previous Justice Department internal investigation, carried out by the Civil Rights Division. So two independent Justice Department investigations testified to the accuracy and reliability of those FBI materials.

Does it strike you as odd that the FBI didn’t use this allegation of King being a witness to a rape as evidence, as artillery against him in their campaign to discredit him? Why wouldn’t they have thrown everything they had at him?

What we know for a fact is the two agents listening in as that alleged assault took place, did nothing. They could have called their hotel-manager friends who had you know, helped arrange the surveillance, and said, “send someone to go knock at the door and interrupt this.” They could do that without outing what they were up to. But that didn’t happen. Nor is there any indication in all of these copious files that anyone higher up in the FBI upon learning of what had transpired, thought anything wrong had been done. Now, those are the facts we know. I posed the question to a number of friends, particularly African-American friends, in these past months. Those agents listening in knew that the woman who was being assaulted was black. And my question that I’ve posed privately to friends is, would those agents have behaved differently had the woman whom they were listening to been white? I don’t have an answer for that.

For many years I have been a very outspoken voice, calling for the prosecution and conviction of Malcolm X’s still-living assassin. Going back to 1992, 1993. White law enforcement has never shown any interest in pursuing Malcolm’s actual killer. I believe that this interest is because Malcolm especially back then was looked down upon, and that crime was dismissed as a “black-on-black” crime. think we have a rich historical track record of white law enforcement viewing black-on-black crime as unworthy of their attention.

What will we learn in 2027, when the public finally gets access to files that have been under court-ordered lockdown?

There’s a huge amount of material covered by the court seal. It’s not simply the tapes and transcripts of the hotel-room microphone surveillance that the FBI carried out, it’s also the logs, the sort of hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute summary notes and transcriptions, from the wiretap on Dr. King’s home in Atlanta, and the multi-line switchboard at his office, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Anyone who’s ever seen the logs of an FBI wiretap realizes how totally intrusive that sort of electronic surveillance is, whether it’s targeting Dr. King or targeting some Trump campaign hanger-on. I have a public record of being intensely critical of FBI surveillance activities of American citizens, irrespective of their politics. I consider Edward Snowden perhaps our greatest living American hero.

Another critique that has been directed at your piece centers around the women with whom King is alleged to have these extramarital affairs. One academic quoted in the New York Times said that you demonstrate “no ethical discord about your own role in revealing unsubstantiated accounts about these women, dead or alive.” How do you respond to that?

I am not the one who’s revealing this. It’s the National Archives who’s revealing this. I’m simply a reporter who’s saying these documents are publicly available. I have privately known the names of many of these women for 40 years. I knew Dorothy Cotton, the most important woman in Dr. King’s life — I spoke with her many times. I never publicly named Dorothy, nor any of the half a dozen other women whose names I’ve long known, until now, until we had federal government putting all this material out in public view at archives dot gov.

You write of King that these allegations “pose so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.” Let’s say for the sake of argument that everything in your article is true. We already know that King’s personal life was turbulent. Would this actually change the way we think of him as a civil-rights icon?

I would say three things. Number one, rape is rape, and I think we’ve seen a sea of change over the past two years in Americans’ understanding about just how widespread the abuse of women by powerful men has been. Not just in the media business in recent years, but at the top of US politics in the 1960s. Number two, come 2027, I think what will be most problematic for people is not the sound of people engaging in sex acts, but so famous and distinctive a voice as Dr. King’s saying some incredibly nasty, unpleasant things, particularly with regard to the then recently deceased president.

In my Standpoint article — I didn’t want to keep harping on it, because it sounds like you’re making an excuse, but I think literally all the time during these different episodes, Dr. King was extremely drunk. We’ve known for 35, 40 years that he certainly had somewhat of a drinking problem by the end of his life. This new material, I think, makes it clear that that binge drinking was occurring at least four to five years earlier as well.

Lastly, I think where the future of scholarship on King will go is toward an even deeper appreciation of how privately troubled he was, because of the burden of his public role. Perhaps my major theme in “Bearing the Cross” 30-plus years ago was that King did not seek out and did not enjoy being a famous public figure. He felt that he had been called and drafted into that role. He wished he could hand off those responsibilities to someone else. And he came, across the course of the 1960s, into an increasingly self-sacrificial understanding of what his life required of him. There are several psychological professionals who have forthcoming book manuscripts on Dr. King, and their unpublished work has had a deep impact on my own understanding of how to interpret this material. But they have professional qualifications in that field, and I don’t.

What’s your overall impression of David Garrow’s essay? And what do you make of the veracity of the claim he’s advancing about Martin Luther King Jr.?

Well, first of all, it’s kind of disturbing that he would report this as if it’s true and verified. I’ve done a lot of research on King, civil rights, and labor history. I’ve got an FBI file of my own from the 1970s, when I was a civil-liberties organizer in the South. And pretty much anybody who has done that kind of research or had that personal experience knows that you can’t accept what an FBI agent says in a written report to J. Edgar Hoover as true.

Over and over again in their summation of things, the FBI gets things wrong. Politically, they don’t understand what’s going on. They’re narrow-minded, and they don’t know the difference between SDS and SNCC, or the New Left and the Old Left. The context for what Garrow is reporting is that J. Edgar Hoover has given them a mission for well over five years by the time King is killed — they were out to destroy King, and also believed, incredibly, that one of the most famous Baptist preachers in the world is a closet communist. And Hoover, once he discovers King’s romantic relationships, claims he’s a pervert and so forth. If you’re an agent in the field, your job is to find stuff that Hoover wants you to find and to give him dirt on King. And the reference that David Garrow’s making in that article about King supposedly standing by while somebody is raped — he’s going off a handwritten note of somebody in the margins of a file, and we don’t even know who made the note. That is not verifiable information.

Garrow says it’s an impeccable source — it was the personal file of William Sullivan, who was head of intelligence at the FBI. 

I don’t think William Sullivan is some paragon of truth. He was one of Hoover’s right-hand men, but so what? I just don’t see why Garrow would accept Sullivan’s or anybody’s word for this. I’ve found FBI material on things I was doing where they totally misinterpreted what was going on. In the King files, you find that as well. I don’t think it’s credible, and the public should not accept it as credible or as any kind of proof. FBI agents had a vested interest in giving Hoover what he wanted, and Garrow knows that better than anybody — he’s the one who wrote the book on it.

Here’s another issue. When people first discovered what the FBI was doing with political surveillance of movements, it was a shock, and sort of outrageous. And now, because we’ve worked with these files for years, it seems like what’s happening is that people are accepting those files as true — which is really a huge mistake. They shouldn’t have been keeping those files in the first place, and they shouldn’t have been wiretapping his hotel room in the first place. That’s private information. I think there’s something really wrong here. We’re waiting for this audio to be published so people can hear it, but it’s not our business. There was no criminal anything that Martin Luther King was doing. There was no reason for these investigations, except to destroy him as a leader. I don’t know if the rest of the files should even be made available to the public in 2027. Why is it our business to know about these private conversations?

Has there been much of an ethical debate on this in the law-enforcement community or the historical community?

I think in the historical community, yeah. People who are historians and journalists and so forth, they want to know information, so when they find a new source, of course they’re very interested. But this is making people’s personal lives part of a national conversation. This is not right. I mean, you have a First Amendment question. You also have a privacy question. And you also have: What are the standards of the society that we’re doing this? If I found the information that David found — I know David and I respect him — but if I had found that information, I would not have written that article.

It’s public information. It’s not just that he found it right? It was released on a the National Archives website.

Yeah, I understand. But, he’s made it into an issue. I would not have done that.

Garrow said, “I have received 100 percent support from all King scholars and FBI scholars who I have been in touch with.” And he said that the critical comments he’d seen in the press did not come from King experts. As a King expert yourself, you clearly don’t agree with what he did. Have you heard much from other people who are also well-versed in this field?

Have you seen the Barbara Ransby article in the New York Times? She’s one of the most knowledgeable civil-rights historians, particularly of women in civil rights, and she’s reviewed lots of FBI files like the rest of us have. I read her article and I thought, you know, she kind of says it all on the moral issue and the protocol issue. It’s not just a matter of King scholars. This is a larger issue about how we write about, report on, and understand the civil-rights movement and the efforts of the government to stop it. I don’t know who David has talked to, but the people that I know who are King scholars, I’d be sort of surprised if they thought this was okay.

Is the behavior described in the file Garrow cites in keeping at all with the behavior you’ve come to know from studying King so closely?

No. I mean, we know that he had lots of affairs. That’s not a surprise, and it’s not news. Here’s a guy on the road 300 days a year. He sees his wife periodically, and they’re fighting over money or whatever, like normal families under stress. It’s not really surprising that under those circumstances, he might have affairs. When I teach my King course, sometimes students go, “Oh God. That really disillusions me.” And then I say, “Well, just think about it for a minute, you know? What do normal people do? They have sex.” He’s a normal person. And this is what Barbara Ransby argues, is that only if we hold him up as a saint or something is this so surprising. But this thing about standing by while somebody is raped goes in another direction completely.

This rape story goes against everything we know about King. He exemplified his ability to apply nonviolence in personal behavior many times in the movement. This alleged incident as interpreted by an FBI agent seems highly unlikely and completely out of character. And I just don’t believe it.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Two MLK Scholars Discuss Explosive and Disputed FBI Files

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How Much Did Thursday’s Debate Hurt Joe Biden?

You wrote about Wednesday night’s debate that though Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead in many Democratic primary polls, Elizabeth Warren and co. barely mentioned him. But once Biden appeared onstage at tonight’s affair, that dynamic rapidly changed. Some candidates were not shy about going after him; the night’s most memorable exchange came when Kamala Harris, in what seemed to be a pre-planned attack, raked him over the coals for opposing busing, connecting his stance to her own childhood and putting him squarely on the defensive. Biden didn’t make any big mistakes, but tripped over his words occasionally and looked his age for a good portion of the evening. (No offense to 76-year-olds.) How much do you think tonight damaged him as a frontrunner?

Clearly Harris’ team saw an advantage in directly pursuing Biden’s voters that others — who were afraid of antagonizing his supporters — didn’t. But Biden’s team was roundly rejecting the idea that he was grievously hurt by these exchanges — “voters, not Twitter!’ was their informal post-debate rallying cry. The beauty here is we’ll see, and soon. One interesting thing: the conventional wisdom in the spin room did seem to shift from “Harris seriously hurt Biden’s chances tonight” to “but maybe she looked overly scripted, and real voters won’t care” fairly quickly. Until we get numbers, of course, this is all just pundit talk. But what the exchange clearly did was establish that his model is likely not the only electable one.

Interesting. It definitely was a script, and it did feel a little uncomfortably opportunistic to me. On the other hand, Harris has been underperforming expectations so far, and this is a moment people will remember. So even if it doesn’t hurt Biden, it will likely boost her, correct? She was excellent beyond that exchange, too.

I’m not sure I agree that she’s been underperforming, but she’s been holding steady at a fairly low number, all things considered. What she definitely did tonight was establish herself as a top-tier candidate. But what does that really mean, in practice? It means we mean something new by “top-tier.” That tier is Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg, but not necessarily in that order, at all. The difference: before there was a tippy-top-tier of Biden alone. I’m not convinced that’ll still be the case — at least as far as pundits and analysts are concerned. Again, we’ll see how voters feel.

19 of these people may soon agree.

Haha. Beyond Biden and Harris, did you think anyone boosted or damaged their candidacy in any serious way?

Gillibrand successfully made herself a major character in the night’s drama for much of the night, and I think Bennet forced his way into more conversations than anyone expected. But if you’re Hickenlooper, you’re not going to be happy to be so far to the edges of the debate’s central moments, only to see your former chief of staff overtake you.

Gillibrand said basically what she’s been saying on the trail for something like 6 months now. The difference is she interrupted the field and edged her way into the night’s discourse on a few issues where she felt she’d been overlooked. It was an obvious strategy, but the night’s biggest takeaway has to still be about Harris and Biden.

One thing that’s fascinating: Bernie Sanders essentially being at the periphery of so much of this, despite being literally center-stage.

Not so different from how it’s felt in the campaign generally lately.

He stuck to his greatest hits, as he often does, but that meant that he didn’t do much confrontation until the end, on Iraq.

Going into this debate, Pete Buttigieg had hit a rough patch in his charmed rise, after his shaky handling of a police shooting in South Bend. In one of the more striking moments tonight, he fielded a question about it by admitting that he had failed to adequately reform his police department. What did you make of his response?

He obviously knew it was coming, and admitting fault was a deft way to get credit for what’s widely been seen as a rough response. One thing that stuck out to me was that many expected someone to attack him for the response. No one expected that to come from Hickenlooper, and then Swalwell. That limited discussion of the actual substance.

Yeah, Swalwell yelled at him to fire his police chief, drawing a glare from Buttigieg.

Finally: what did you think of tonight’s moderators? I thought they asked pretty good questions and for the most part imposed order, though there were some stretches of lawlessness.

Strategic lawlessness! It was slightly strange that these candidates got to respond to what happened on the previous night, but clearly the moderators wanted to put on a show and maximize meaningful conflict. I think it worked, and I don’t have a problem with candidates running over their time. Rules shmules.

One thing that will definitely change about the questions in future debates: Harris and Warren will both have to defend their records now.

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