Each year on Martin Luther King day, millions of Americans reflect on the life and impact of Martin Luther King. Everyone knows that King organized the March on Washington in 1963, delivering the powerful “I Have A Dream” speech, and that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But there is one American who is reminded of another aspect of King’s legacy, a chapter from the history of the FBI that has not been widely publicized, whitewashed from the textbooks of American history. That man is James Comey, the current FBI director, who keeps a copy of Hoover’s 1961 request to wiretap Martin Luther King as a reminder of how King stood up to the FBI’s illegal surveillance and harassment tactics, as well as a reminder of how a powerful bureau has the capacity to do wrong.
In November 2014, Beverly Gage, an American history professor at Yale, published a fascinating article in the New York Times about her discovery of the infamous “suicide letter” mailed to Martin Luther King by the FBI in 1964. To understand why this letter was sent, let’s go back three years to 1961, when King was gaining public stature. Fearing that King was a member of the Communist Party, J. Edgar Hoover, then the Director of the FBI, ordered a wiretap of King’s home, office, and hotel rooms. Hoover and his colleagues were actually shocked by what their wiretaps revealed; Gage elaborates: “Here was a minister, the leader of a moral movement, acting like ‘a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges,’ Hoover wrote on one memo. In response, FBI officials began to peddle information about King’s hotel-room activities to friendly members of the press, hoping to discredit the civil rights leader.” At a news conference on November 18, 1964, Hoover declared that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” A few days later, to pressure King to step away from the civil rights movement, William Sullivan (one of Hoover’s deputies) wrote the “suicide letter” including an audiotape of his “immoral behavior” that was mailed to King. You can imagine Coretta’s surprise when she received the package and opened it. Clearly someone was out to blackmail her husband.
The letter, riddled with typos, begins with: “In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr…. Your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.” The letter refers to the audiotape and describes King’s alleged lovers, their behavior, and how they reflect on King himself; the civil rights leader is denounced as an “evil, abnormal beast.” (Little did Sullivan know that his boss would later be remembered as a gay cross-dresser, as alleged in Anthony Summers’s controversial 1993 biography of Hoover.) The letter ends with a threat: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do [this]… You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” Gage, and other King scholars, believe that the letter was urging King to commit suicide. King met with his advisors and decided to ignore the letter, suspecting it came from Hoover, and continued his very public battle against racial inequality through nonviolence.
Gage comments on the legacy of the “suicide letter”: “Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often — though not always — a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became. Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious. One oddity of Hoover’s campaign against King is that it mostly flopped, and the FBI never succeeded in seriously damaging King’s public image. Half a century later, we look upon King as a model of moral courage and human dignity. Hoover, by contrast, has become almost universally reviled.”
King was only 1 of 432,000 Americans that were investigated illegally for alleged “subversive” activities by the FBI. Hoover kept the most sensitive files in his office, managed by his secretary, Helen Gandy. Upon his death, Gandy was instructed to destroy those files. Today, the bulk of the files that were not kept in his office can be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
For further reading: J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets by Curt Gentry (2001)
Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover by Anthony Summers (1993)