Martin, Thurgood…and J. Edgar?
The Preacher, the Black Cardinal, and the Grand Inquisitor
I highly recommend Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Reading it in the context of Ferguson, Garner, etc. this book really f*cked me up, as they say nowadays. Based on my experience, I’d recommend just picking up the book and reading it, without googling “Groveland Boys” or looking at some reviews of the book. All I can say is that, despite that determinedly sunny subtitle, it will take you into some very dark places.
Actually, what I will say is that the book also offers some more fascinating insights into the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the civil rights movement. As I wrote in a previous post, “Everybody Wants Their Own Stasi,” Hoover disliked and distrusted Martin Luther King as a troublemaker and, possibly, a communist asset. One of the worst abuses of the FBI was the campaign of illegal wiretaps and bugging against King and his inner circular conducted at the behest of the Kennedys. It culminated in the infamous “suicide letter” prepared by the FBI and mailed to King’s home (not at the behest of the Kennedys, I should point out).
On the other hand, when pressed by LBJ, Hoover devoted massive resources to breaking the Mississippi Burning case and went on to destroy the Mississippi KKK with considerable efficiency and apparent enthusiasm.
Devil in the Grove provides some useful context. In the 1950s the NAACP’s strategy for attacking Jim Crow in the south was to federalize the legal issues, using the appeals process to pull the most egregious cases out of the racist local courts and carry them through the appellate courts and, if necessary/possible, before the relatively sympathetic Supreme Court. The Justice Department, including the FBI, was often a significant adjunct to this process, providing federal investigators to gather exculpatory evidence in NAACP Legal Defense Fund cases that local law enforcement, usually riddled with KKK members and sometimes too cowed and incompetent to do their jobs, had ignored or suppressed or worse.
The NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall in particular, were sedulous in courting the FBI and endorsing, encouraging, and actively supporting J. Edgar Hoover’s highest priority/obsession: his jihad against communist subversion.
And J. Edgar Hoover, as long as he was confident that inserting the FBI into southern civil rights cases would not “embarrass the Bureau”, particularly by involving the FBI in cases which threatened to terminate with humiliating defeats in local courts, was willing to oblige the NAACP.
I haven’t read up on the full history of the NAACP or Marshall, so I’m not in a position to tease out how much of their anti-communism was strategic (reflecting the need for rock-solid federal backing), political (the NAACP competed with a communist-penetrated organization, the Civil Rights Congress, for leadership in the black civil rights struggle), or deeply-held ideology.
All I can say is, after a bumpy start, in the late 1940s and 1950s the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall assiduously stroked J. Edgar Hoover on the anti-communism issue, and J. Edgar Hoover was generally sympathetic to the NAACP and its need for federal agents to assist in the investigation of crimes in the Jim Crow South.
Devil in the Grove provides some examples:
In April 1947, putting together an NAACP anticommunism position pamphlet, [NAACP president Walter] White requested a patriotic encomium from J. Edgar Hoover, who replied that it would be his “pleasure”. [pp. 111-112]…Early in the summer of 1950 [with nationwide desegregation of public education now seen as an achievable goal—ed]…Marshall and the board of the NAACP found it necessary to pass and adopt an anticommunist resolution, which directed the organization’s leaders to “eradicate Communists from its branch units.”…Marshall took special delight in trumping the political maneuvers of the NAACP’s communist wing…Marshall could…boast, “we socked them good”…The executive staff and majority delegates of the NAACP had in fact socked the communists good on virtually every resolution they’d brought to the convention floor in 1950. They walked out in frustration “and never came back,” said Marshall, whose management of the communist issue…earned him an oral commendation from J. Edgar Hoover. [pp. 205-207]…[On one occasion, Marshall was embarrassed that an informant with communist ties whom he had introduced to the FBI had found disfavor with the Bureau...] While Kennedy’s communist affiliations hardly bore upon the case, they provided Marshall, in his dismissal of the writer’s presumed scoops, with the opportunity to affect solidarity with the FBI. As always, Marshall expressed his appreciation for the bureau’s efforts…In return, he was thanked “for his appreciation of confidence in the work of this Bureau…” Once again, Hoover and Marshall performed their private rites of cooperation. 
Remarkably, the relationship between Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, two civil rights icons, does not seem to have been any closer or sympathetic than the ties between Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover.
Readers can judge for themselves, with this excerpt from interviews recorded by Marshall’s biographer, Juan Williams:
Q: Did (Hoover) fear that King was a communist?
A: He just had an absolute blur on communism. It's unbelievable. I don't know what happened to him, I don't know what happened but something happened.
No, it was personal. He bugged everything King had. Everything. And the guy that did it was a friend of a private detective in New York who's a good friend of mine, Buck Owens. He called up and said, Buck, do you know Martin Luther King? And he said, no. He said do you know anybody that goes? He said yes. He said well you please tell him, don't use my name but I'm in the group that's bugging everything he's got. Even when he goes to the toilet. I mean we've bugged everything and I think it's a dirty damn trick and he ought to know about it.
So Buck called me and I called Brother King. He was in Atlanta then. And I told him about it and he said, oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn't interest him. That's what he said. He didn't care, no.
Q: How do you interpret that?
A: I don't and I've never been able to. That he wasn't doing anything wrong. Well they ain't nobody who can say that. Right. Right. And when I called him up and told him that his house was bugged and all, he said so what? Doesn't bother me. That's what he said.
Q: Did you guys know about all this sex stuff that they talk about these days?
A: I knew that the stories were out. And I knew who was putting them out.
Q: Mr. Hoover?
A: No, it was a private police business. They used to settle strikes and everything. [Pinkertons] I'm not saying whether, I don't know, I don't know whether he was right or Hoover was right. I don't know which one was right.
Q: What did you think about the fact that he didn't care about being bugged?
A: Well, the answer was simple. I don't know if a man can humanly do all the things. Five and six times a night with five and six different women. We add it all up, I mean he just couldn't be all them places at the same time. I don't believe in it personally. But I don't know, when I was solicitor general, a lot of things came by, arguments between the attorney general and the director of the FBI and I, by internal rules, had to get copies of all of it. And we had to have a special safe and I know that of all the things that I listened to and read, I never found Mr. Hoover to have lied once. Not once. I don't know, I'm not saying he always told the truth -
Q: You never found him to have lied?
A: That's right. I mean he was never proved to be a liar. He always came up with the right stuff, usually it would be a taped thing. You can tell by the tape. I don't know. But that's between him and, I think the only way to do it would be him and King and put 'em in the same room. And it's too late to do that.
Marshall’s remarks support Tim Weiner’s portrait of Hoover in Enemies as an unnervingly astute and capable bureaucrat who effectively performed his impossible mission—navigating between the conflicting demands of the Constitution for civil liberties and the Executive Branch for universal intelligence—with marked success for five decades…
…perhaps as astutely and capably as Marshall shrank the grey areas between the Constitution, state law, and justice in his epic struggle for civil rights.
Hoover and Marshalls were two insiders “present at the creation”, their exalted status and power the result of a hard-won, superior understanding of the contradictions and potentialities of American government as it is.
Contrast with Marshall’s dismissive attitude toward King and Jesse Jackson:
Who made Jesse Jackson? The press. Who made Martin Luther King? The press, they do it. Because it writes good, it writes well. And you know Martin Luther King didn't have a publicity person. No sir. The press did it all. The press did it all.
Reading Marshall’s account of his awkward exchange with King over the surveillance issue, I find it hard to believe that King’s reaction to the intense surveillance was really “oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn't interest him...He didn't care, no.”
I have a feeling King didn’t really feel that way. Maybe what he was thinking, “Marshall, he’s close to Hoover. I’m not going to let it get back to Hoover that I’m upset or afraid. That’s what he wants.”
At the time of the King surveillance, Marshall was serving as an appellate court judge; the next year LBJ appointed him Solicitor General and, in 1967 nominated Marshall for a seat on the Supreme Court.
In other words, King, the evangelical populist was not on the same page with Marshall, and Marshall, whom I would characterize as the black cardinal in the high church of America’s deep state, perhaps found himself somewhat more at home in the company of its Grand Inquisitor, J. Edgar Hoover.