In early 1965, as Marin Luther King prepared to embark on his historic campaign to march for voting rights in Selma and Montgomery, and at the same time execute the delicate task of publicly enlisting the LBJ White House in the battle for federal voting rights legislation, the FBI mailed the odious “suicide letter” to his home. The package included an audio tape compilation reportedly documenting (and perhaps, through careful editing, exaggerating) King’s adulterous sexual exploits. The accompanying letter, exploiting knowledge of King’s spiritual and emotional struggle over his transgressions gleaned from other surveillance, urged him to commit suicide.
What happened then? We know what happened at Selma. As for the sex tapes, an interesting and apparently unanswered question. I take a swing at it here. But first some background on Hoover’s relationship to the civil rights movement.
Hoover was an implacable enemy of black liberation movements. The FBI conducted an illegal, bloody, and successful campaign against the Black Panthers and other militant groups conducted under the program COINTELPRO—BLACK HATE.
But before COINTELPRO—BLACK HATE, there was Hoover’s arm’s length and ambivalent relationship with moderate black civil rights leaders. And, believe it or not, before COINTELPRO—BLACK HATE, there was COINTELPRO—WHITE HATE.
J. Edgar Hoover was a complicated man. That is to say, he was capable, competent, crude, cruel, and subtle by turns, dogmatic and reactive, flexible and creative, always determined and relentless, much like, I would posit, the skilled and compromised individuals who run the secret police in any number of countries. And make no mistake. As Director of the FBI, Hoover’s primary identity and mission were the collection of intelligence—and more, a lot more--on actual or potential enemies of the state, mainly commies--not the investigation of crimes. He ran our Stasi. Get used to it.
I don’t think you would get much argument, even from his defenders, on the issue of Hoover’s racism. However, in his relationships with Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, the two opposite poles of moderate African-American activism in the United States, his racism was expressed in a variety of expected and unexpected ways.
The NAACP, and Thurgood Marshall in particular, were committed to a legal strategy of federalizing judiciary review and law enforcement of civil rights cases in order to escape the violence and oppression of the South (I strongly recommend Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King as a chronicle of Marshall’s valiant efforts to mitigate and rebuke the multi-decade/multi-generational carnival of horror that can be inflicted on black men and women in America).
Therefore, Marshall was sedulous in courting the FBI and endorsing, encouraging, and actively supporting J. Edgar Hoover’s highest priority/obsession: his jihad against communist subversion. The NAACP vigorously purged itself of its Communist-affiliated elements and activists. Marshall helped engineer a walkout of communists from the 1950 NAACP convention and was rewarded with a verbal commendation from the Director.
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.
When Lyndon Johnson—who enjoyed a rapport with Hoover that the Kennedys, particularly Robert Kennedy, conspicuously lacked—committed to federal advancement of civil rights, Hoover pitched in.
In the “Mississippi Burning” case, those of us who get our potted civil rights history from the movies probably vaguely recall that it the righteous Bobby Kennedy who ordered the FBI down to Mississippi to search for the three murdered civil rights workers in 1964. But after JFK had been assassinated and LBJ had taken office, Bobby Kennedy was a non-factor, disliked, distrusted, and sidelined by LBJ and Hoover.
Hoover was no fan of “integrationists” and at first had no interest in committing the FBI to the case. But Lyndon Johnson had other ideas and decided to act on a proposal from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (brought to the White House by RFK) and prevail on his good buddy Edgar to unleash the FBI to overcome the perversion of justice currently being orchestrated by the local Klan-dominated police forces. In his book on the FBI, Enemies, Tim Weiner documents the deployment of LBJ’s legendary persuasive arsenal:
“If I have to send in troops…it could be awfully dangerous. I’m having these demands for 5,000 soldiers…To send in a bunch of Army people, divisions, is just a mistake. But I’ve got ample FBI people…I want you to have the same kind of intelligence that you have on the communists.” [p.244]
LBJ’s insistence carried the day, and Hoover flooded Mississippi with Bureau agent ready to apply the lessons of the war on communist subversion to the KKK. $30,000 paid to the appropriate informant yielded the three bodies, buried in an earthen dam. Another quarter million dollars—“worth about $1.75 million dollars today, far greater than any FBI informant ever before had received”--delivered the names of the nearly 20 men who had conspired to murder Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
Hoover developed a taste for the work and replicated his no-holds-barred assault on US leftists to devastate the utterly vicious, overmatched, and incompetent KKK leadership in Mississippi under the program COINTELPRO—WHITE HATE.
WHITE HATE intensified rapidly in the fall of 1964. It involved all the techniques developed in the FBI’s long-running attack on the Left. Once a week during the fall of 1964, FBI agents interrogated all known members of the White Knights of the KKK, blaming other Klansmen for being snitches and naming names, sowing deep suspicion among Klan members…The FBI dangled small fortunes before potential KKK informers, offered outright bribes to Klansmen who could serve as double agents inside state and local police forces, planted bugs and wiretaps in Klaverns, carried out black-bag jobs to steal membership lists and (on at least one occasion) dynamite caches…”There would be a Klan meeting with ten people there, and six of them would be reporting back the next day,” said the FBI’s Joseph J. Rucci, Jr…I remember we would send them post cards…I remember one in particular showed a Klansman and someone peeking up a sheet and it would say…’I wonder who is peeking under your sheet tonight.’” [Tim Weiner, Enemies, pp. 247-8]
Martin Luther King, who spoke the socialism-tinged rhetoric of mass action rather than trading in the “working within the system” forensics of talented-tenther Thurgood Marshall, was another matter. Hoover notoriously detested King and eagerly pursued the opportunity to ruin him by collecting leaking documentation of King’s sexual habits, culminating in the suicide letter.
One of the most interesting and famous chapters in Hoover’s civil rights history is the lethal dance that the Kennedy brothers led with Hoover over the issue of Martin Luther King and, in particular, the purported Communist ties of King’s white advisor, Stanley Levison. Levison had apparently broken with communism as an ideology in 1956 over Hungary, before he started working with King.
Hoover was determined to establish Levison’s current communist ties in order to discredit King, and Robert Kennedy as AG greenlit Hoover to blackbag, wiretap, and bug King, Levison and his associates to the nth degree in an attempt to establish the link. The smoking gun never emerged (Levison did get hauled before a secret session of a Congressional committee, where he denied “now or ever having been” and then took the 5th on all other queries), and the Kennedys did not allow themselves to get buffaloed into turning against King by Hoover and the non-stop stream of anti-King tittle-tattle that the FBI funneled into the Oval Office, and to their allies in Congress and the media.
Nevertheless, Hoover’s campaign had made Levison toxic enough that the Kennedys prevailed on King to break overt ties with him as a condition of White House support for King’s efforts. Levison continued to work with King through a cutout.
And thanks to the Kennedys’ desire to hedge their security and political bets, the FBI did collect enough tapes of King’s bedroom activities in order to produce one of the seamiest COINTELPRO crimes: the attempt to drive King to suicide by sending the tapes and a jeering letter to his home.
Everybody who was anybody in Washington apparently heard the tapes at one time or another.
Including, it would seem, Thurgood Marshall.
As can be seen from an interview recorded by Marshall biographer, Juan Williams, even a dedicated civil rights crusader and eventual Supreme Court justice, albeit one whose transactional dealings with the FBI was relatively satisfactory (and relationships with the SCLC quite fraught), could have a queasy appreciation for Hoover. The transcript also inadvertently reveals the sizeable personal as well as political gap between the NCAAP and SCLC wings of the civil rights movement, and a certain obliviousness by Marshall as to the personal catastrophe that threatened to engulf King.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.
Reading Marshall’s account of his awkward exchange with King over the surveillance issue, I find it hard to believe that King’s interior reaction to the intense surveillance was really “oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn't interest him...He didn't care, no.”
In fact, David Garrow’s biography of King, Bearing the Cross, tells us of the actual aftermath of the letter:
The FBI’s frightening threat sent King into an even worse state of mind. He became so nervous and upset he could not sleep…”They are out to break me,” he told one close friend over a wiretapped phone line. “They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”…King…had decided that something must be done about the FBI’s threat. He had tried resting at a private hideaway known to just two other people, only to have Atlanta fire trucks turn up at the door in response to a false alarm that King correctly surmised had been turned in by the FBI so as to upset him further…As a deeply depressed King...discussed the FBI situation [the Bureau had bugged King’s hotel room in New York]…The conversation revealed how greatly disturbed King was…King [characterized] the mailing of the tape as, “God’s out to get you,” and as a warning from God that King had not been living up to his responsibilities…When King was in Baltimore, [Andrew] Young and [Ralph] Abernathy met in Washington with [the FBI’s Deke] DeLoach [who denied] that the FBI had any interest in…King’s private life. Young and Abernathy knew that DeLoach’s assertions were false…Its one value, Young explained later, was to show him how FBI executives like DeLoach had “almost a kind of fascist mentality. It really kind of scared me”…DeLoach gloated to his superiors that he had tried to make the talk as unpleasant and embarrassing as possible…Meanwhile the Bureau kept its campaign on full throttle. Assistant Director Sullivan tried to derail a dinner honoring King…and two prominent Georgia newsmen…were contacted to offer them tidbits on King’s personal life…” [pp. 373-77]
A complicating element of the situation that King had been previously aware of Hoover’s hostility, and that the FBI was building a file on his sexual activities. At first, in November 1964, King tried to go on the offensive against Hoover. King critiqued Hoover’s alleged shortcomings in investigating civil rights cases and went the extra mile in denouncing Hoover (in calls wiretapped by the FBI) as “too old and broken down” and “getting senile.” Then King proposed, in Garrow’s words, that Hoover “should be ‘hit from all sides’ with criticism in a concerted effort to get President Johnson to censure him.” [p. 361]. As one might expect, this gambit failed to sway Johnson.
Instead, King was in the unhappy situation of realizing he had mortally offended a supremely ruthless, capable, and vindictive national security bureaucrat, one who also had documented evidence of details of King’s personal life that could destroy him.
King’s efforts to backtrack and reconcile with Hoover in a meeting arranged by Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach were, if not doomed from the start, too little too late, and King spent the next weeks under a pall of anxiety that even overshadowed his triumphal appearance to receive his Nobel Peace Prize at Stockholm.
Then the FBI dropped the hammer in January 1965, sending the tape and suicide letter. His wife, Coretta, heard the tape; King gathered his advisers to deal with the imminent threat of humiliation, disgrace, and failure.
King, bearing this unimaginable mental and emotional burden, descended into the vortex of Selma…
…and that is, apparently, where the saga of the King sex tape ends.
The next reference to Hoover in Garrow’s biography occurs in May of 1964, after King’s triumph at Selma and Montgomery, Alabama and LBJ’s endorsement of federal voting rights protections for African-Americans:
King knew the FBI still had an active interest in his personal life, and he worried greatly about a public revelation of the Bureau’s embarrassing tapes. He asked a longtime family friend, Chicago’s Rev. Archibald J. Carey, Jr., to speak with his friends in the FBI hierarchy. Cassey did so, reporting back to King that it would be wise to keep up his public commendations of FBI accomplishments. 
Hmmm. That’s all? Recall that Hoover bore an intense personal dislike for King, had information that could destroy King’s reputation and public standing and, indeed, had already played the sex tapes for much of official and unofficial Washington. Judging by the FBI’s machinations, Hoover would have been glad to see King commit suicide. For King, suppressing the tapes had been a matter of desperate, existential importance and endless worry.
After all this, all the lethal J. Edgar Hoover wanted was just a few generous public attaboys from Martin Luther King?
Don’t think so.
I can only draw the inference that LBJ, the only individual with the necessary stroke and personal relationship with Hoover to channel and modify the Director’s actions, convinced Hoover that the tapes should stay in the safe.
And Hoover, perhaps, stayed his hand because LBJ convinced him that there were plenty more radical and scary African-American leaders out there to destroy and King, in contrast, was actually a manageable, moderating force. And perhaps also because, as his experience of cooperation with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP demonstrated, Hoover was not constitutionally averse to the exercise of federal power to advance African-American civil rights.