Pittsburgh historian uncovers explosive allegations about MLK Jr.; some experts skeptical
Dr. Martin Luther King speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City on Aug. 22, 1964. (AP file)
Newly released documents pertaining to FBI surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., include deeply disturbing and potentially explosive allegations about the slain civil-rights leader’s extramarital sexual activities, and that he was present in a hotel room during an alleged rape. But some historians caution that there are reasons to doubt the claims.
The new information was unearthed by David J. Garrow, the Pittsburgh-based author and historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for his 1986 book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” Key findings were published online and in print Thursday in “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King,” a 7,800-word article in the conservative British monthly Standpoint.
Pulitzer-winning author and historian David J. Garrow lives in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy of David Rubin)
Garrow is a former professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He has made a life-long study of King and the FBI’s obsessive spying on him.
A little over a year ago, Garrow delved into a vast trove of documents freshly released online by the National Archives. The document dump was vast: about 54,600 web links, many of which connected to multiple documents, or to individual documents hundreds of pages long each, says Garrow. Most of the documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But Garrow says his decades of experience with the FBI’s filing system enabled him to find the “very tiny percentage” of the material pertaining to King.
That still translates to hundreds of documents. Most of what Garrow found, he says, simply expanded on existing public knowledge of King’s private activities. The new materials, for instance, provided more information about the number of women King had affairs with during the four-and-a-half years the FBI spied on him, starting in late 1963. Garrow says it’s been known “for 35 to 40 years that there were multiple other girlfriends. I always thought that there were probably 10 to 12 over the course of four or five years. This new material makes clear that the total is more like 40 to 45 different girlfriends.”
But the most shocking allegation involves an incident on Jan. 5, 1964, at the Willard Hotel, in Washington, D.C. According to a text summary of surveillance audiotapes found in the files of FBI assistant director William C. Sullivan – a top deputy to J. Edgar Hoover – King and a party of friends checked into a hotel room. The room was bugged, with two FBI agents listening in from a nearby room. Then, the document says, King’s friend, a fellow Baptist minister, “forcibly raped” a woman who was one of the other minister’s parishioners. The summary adds that “King looked on, laughed and offered advice” during the alleged rape.
No one can hear the actual audiotapes or read the FBI’s transcripts: Both are sealed by court order until 2027. But if this incident were true, it would likely change many people’s perception of King, who despite his flaws remains a social-justice hero, one with his own national holiday.
Author and Yale University professor Beverly Gage, who is writing a book on Hoover, has read Garrow’s Standpoint article and calls it “remarkable research.” She adds that the alleged hotel-room rape was the “most explosive” component.
“We’re certainly having a big cultural conversation about the relationship between public lives and private lives, the relationship between sexual violence and sexual transgressions, and other aspects of people’s lives and accomplishments,” says Gage. “I think it’s going to be particularly intense in the case of Martin Luther King, and I do think that it will reshape his legacy in some way.”
The King estate did not return messages seeking comment.
Garrow notes that King isn’t the only one who looks bad in this scenario. For one thing, his new findings illuminate the extent to which the Bureau went to acquire material to discredit the civil-rights leader, in this case just months after his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. Regarding the Jan. 5 incident in particular, Garrow says he finds it disturbing that the FBI did nothing to halt a reported crime in progress.
“The most important thing to emphasize is that that sexual assault was tape-recorded by the FBI as it took place,” he says. “These two FBI agents listened in in real time as this woman was assaulted and did nothing to stop or interrupt or report it, and not just the two agents, but when that tape goes to headquarters and is transcribed. Everybody in the intelligence division knows that this black woman was sexually assaulted. Are the agents reprimanded for not having interrupted or reported this crime? No. So the FBI, not just a few agents, the whole chain of command is actively complicit in that rape just as much so as allegedly King is in witnessing him it himself.”
Garrow’s reputation is substantial; his other books include “Rising Star,” a comprehensive and widely reviewed 2017 biography of Barack Obama. But given that Standpoint did not fact-check his article, there’s another question here, one about the strength of the evidence for the FBI’s allegations against King. Did the incident actually happen as described?
The FBI summary describing the rape incident was typewritten. But the seven words describing King’s actions – “King looked on, laughed, and offered advice” – are hand-written in pencil. It’s marginalia scrawled by someone whom Garrow says was likely Sullivan, the assistant director.
That will strike many as suspicious. After all, Garrow’s article is the just the latest to detail that – as with many political activists – Hoover’s FBI had it in for Martin Luther King. The Bureau first tried to prove King was a communist and, when that didn’t work, it pursued him as a sexual deviant, Garrow says.
“The Bureau’s hope was clearly to smear King in private, throughout official Washington, through church circles during those years,” he says.
Sullivan was also behind the infamous “suicide letter” the FBI sent to King later that same year, in November 1964. The letter, accompanied by excerpts of FBI surveillance tapes recording King’s romantic liaisons, seems to suggest that King should kill himself: reading, quote, “there is but one way out for you.”
For such reasons alone, some critics prescribe skepticism about jumping to conclusions.
“I wouldn’t believe anything that’s in some summaries done by disparate agencies, if they exist. Sometimes they’re made up,” says University of Pennsylvania history professor Mary Frances Berry. Berry was a longtime member and is a former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She also wrote a history of the commission, which includes FBI attempts to smear King to commission members and staffers.
Berry says she wouldn’t have published Garrow’s new information on King.
“I think that the lurid stories are probably exaggerated, and there’s no reason for us to compromise [King’s] reputation and denounce him, and take down his monument based on this kind of a story,” she says. “Let’s wait until we see the tapes, let’s wait till we hear them, and then see what we think.”
There are other reasons to be wary of the summary.
Garrow says that its text, and also the hand-written addendums – including the one implicating King – were made by Sullivan and others who had access to the original surveillance tapes and a transcript. In the Standpoint article, Garrow argues that the transcripts are reliable because in 1977, investigators from the Department of Justice “would publicly attest to how their own review of both the tapes and the transcripts showed them to be genuine and accurate.”
However, the Jan. 11, 1977, Justice Department document from which Garrow drew this information – and which he shared with WESA – states that the investigators reviewed only “selected portions of all the transcripts in the King file as well as selected portions of several tapes from which the transcripts were obtained.”
The report, titled “Report of the Department of Justice Task Force to Review the FBI Martin Luther King, Jr., Security and Assassination Investigations,” indicates that investigators reviewed only 11 of the 15 reels of tape yielded by the Jan. 5 and 6 surveillance at the Willard Hotel.
Furthermore, the investigators write, “we reviewed the tapes by listening to the beginning, middle, and end of each tape and compared it to the corresponding transcript.”
The report does not indicate what was on the tapes, only that the investigators reviewed portions of them.
The report is signed by the five Justice Department lawyers who were on the task force. WESA was able to contact one of them, Joseph F. Gross, who lives in retirement, in Nebraska. Gross said he could not remember whether the task force listened to all or part of the tapes. “I haven’t looked at this material in 40 years,” he said. He said he did not recall hearing recordings of an alleged rape where King was present.
Gage, the Yale history professor who is writing a biography of Hoover, also notes that the words and sounds on the original tapes from the hotel room were themselves subject to interpretation. Remember, the FBI agents were listening in – they couldn’t see anything that was happening in the other room. And the agents transcribing the tapes operated as employees of an institution with its own priorities, she says.
“There is a whole wealth of interpretation that is determined by the FBI’s own subjective internal culture, that’s determined by people’s desires to tell their superiors what they want to hear, tell a figure like J. Edgar Hoover what he wants to hear,” Gage says.
For instance, in 1963, according to that same Department of Justice review of King’s files, Sullivan had told Hoover that there was no evidence of communist influence in the civil-rights movement – then quickly recanted after Hoover was angered by that conclusion.
Still, Garrow writes he doubts agents would have fabricated a story like the hotel-room rape.
In the Standpoint article, he writes, “Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day.” These were internal Bureau documents, after all, and agents “would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript.”
In a recent interview, Garrow adds that he had an inkling that such an incident existed for decades. In 1979 or 1980, when he was a young researcher, he says, lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice told him they’d seen evidence that King was present during an incident in which a woman was assaulted. The information is noted in his 1981 book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Garrow says nothing came of it until now, but says he views that story as “as corroboration for what Sullivan has now scribbled out in this account,” as detailed in the Standpoint article.
Gage agrees that Sullivan’s memo is probably based on evidence of some kind in the tape or transcripts.
“I think it was unlikely that it was invented with no basis in reality,” she says.
Garrow says it was very difficult to find a publisher for his article. He says he approached about three-dozen magazines and major newspapers, most in the U.S. and the U.K. Some, he says, told him it was too long, and others said, “It’s not a fit for us.”
“A small number of forthright editors frankly said, ‘We think this is too controversial, too revelatory for us,'” he says.
Garrow say the article got farthest with the British newspaper The Guardian, which paid him for the story and got well into the editing process before pulling the plug. (The Guardian declined to comment.) Another publication he says he approached was The Washington Post, whose spokesperson Shani George also declined to comment.
Garrow finally connected with Standpoint, a conservative British monthly magazine that is pitching his article in a #MeToo context, as exposing the abuse of women. However, Garrow himself cautions that his findings do not close the book on what happened in that hotel room.
“I think only when the full materials are available, not just the summary samples, will there be possible a full historical reconsideration of to what degree does this undercut King’s reputation,” he says.
He notes that King himself seemed to understand that some sides of his personality were at odds with his public image.
“He often preached in a very confessional voice to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta,” says Garrow. He paraphrases a sermon of King’s from March 1968, a month before his assassination, in which King said, “within each of us there is both a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“King talked about himself as a sinner, so King knew, and said to his church, that he was capable of evil,” says Garrow. “And so we ought to tell ourselves, remind ourselves that King was able to be critical of himself in a way that I think some people today are not willing to be similarly critical.”
But Garrow acknowledges there can’t be a definitive reckoning until we can read the transcripts and hear the tapes, once they are unsealed, on Jan. 31, 2027.
“I would hope that we would then be able to understand a kind of complicated picture, as opposed to a picture in which this negates everything else that he did and accomplished in his life,” says Gage. “But I think we’re going to see a lot of passionate feelings about this new evidence, and we’re going to have a pretty serious controversy and debate.”