“What is now happening… in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter…”
The words quoted above could well express the popular legacy of singular peoples’ leaders like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Paul Robeson, or Martin Luther King Junior. However, they were not written about them, but for Karl Marx. They were offered by Vladimir Lenin over a century ago.
But Lenin’s words do not fully measure the ruthlessness of the US ruling class’s profound racism and anti-Communism. US elites and their loyal servants cannot tolerate for more than a moment the “danger” of venerated, respected African American leaders who refuse to bow before the altar of mindless, ritualized anti-Communism. It is not enough to dilute their thinking, minimize their actions, and sanitize their reputations, they must be “scandalized,” to paraphrase the Negro spiritual popularized by Paul Robeson.
It was in contempt of these slanders that the aging intellectual giant W.E.B. Du Bois publicly announced his application for membership in the Communist Party, packed his bags, and moved to Ghana.
In the wake of his assassination, the legacy of ML King followed the path outlined by Lenin: his early, conciliatory speeches were widely quoted; politicians and celebrities pointed approvingly of his commitment to nonviolence; and he was “canonized” with a national holiday.
But his outspoken criticism of the war in Vietnam, his focus on poverty and working class issues, and his revealed respect and willingness to work with Communists could not go unchallenged.
King’s impassioned Riverside Church speech against war and imperialism became a touchstone for the anti-war movement in the era of endless wars.
Coming just three months before his assassination, his less well-known Freedomways speech denouncing anti-Communism and honoring Communists like Neruda, Picasso, and Dubois existed as a profound irritant to the guardians of capitalism.
Consequently, attempts to tarnish King’s reputation have escalated in recent years. The most recent and, arguably, the most scurrilous is a new article by Professor David Garrow, published in a conservative UK magazine.
The Pulitzer Prize-awarded Garrow has researched some FBI records declassified in recent months from their depository in the National Archives. Apparently, Garrow found both reports and summarized and partial transcripts of tape recordings made from wiretaps of locations occupied by King (residence, hotels, SCLC headquarters) and other documents. The original tapes and full transcripts will remain unavailable until 2027.
Garrow’s self-described “pain-staking work” fixated on two aspects of the FBI’s quasi-legal or Robert Kennedy-approved surveillance: King’s sex life and his association with Communists. Judging from the article, Garrow shows little historian’s interest in the other interactions of King with his associates, officials, the media, or the public that might be revealed from these files. Nor does he demonstrate a hint of skepticism over the reliability, bias, or accuracy of transcripts or summaries. The hushed, provocative tone of Garrow’s sensational revelations lull the reader into forgetting that the eaves-droppers who made the transcripts were drawn from J. Edgar Hoover’s stable of nearly all-white, conservative, often racist and surely rabidly anti-Communist agents. It is easy to overlook that the reports and summaries were not primary sources; by Garrow’s own admission, they were one or two removes from both the original tapes and the full transcripts.
Moreover, Garrow’s editing and interpretation place us further removed from the primary sources.
Garrow’s interpretative skills are challenged by his incredible spin on an excerpt from an FBI report that deplores King’s sexual activities because they “‘leave him highly susceptible to coercion and possible blackmail.’” Garrow tags this with his own bizarre understanding: “presumably by knowledgeable Communists” [my emphasis]. Are we to believe that the FBI thinks that King is both a closet Communist and a potential object of Communist blackmail? The fact that the FBI tried to coerce and blackmail King to kill himself little more than a year after the referenced memo renders Garrow’s presumption absurd. The FBI wanted to compromise King; they were not protective of others compromising him.
Garrow incredibly and boldly asserts that the FBI “would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript, both of which remain under court seal and one day will confirm or disprove the FBI’s summary allegation.” FBI employees would need a remarkable ability to anticipate that their notes, summaries, and reports would one day end up in the National Archives for this defense to make any sense at all. Hoover’s 1963 G-men hardly feared that their often illicit and illegal activities would one day be revealed to the public. As for motive, wouldn’t Hoover’s well-established hatred of King be enough?
But more significantly, transcribers of the tapes need not have purposely embellished the transcripts, though conservative, white, racially-backward agents may well have meant to portray King in the worst possible light. They may simply have been unable to unscramble, interpret, or weigh the nuances of the original tapes. Garrow gives us no assurances that the transcribers (or the summarizers)– likely only marginally familiar with African American language subtleties, slang, or humor– were reliable conveyors of what they were hearing. Any competent historian would note these reservations.
The most sensational of Garrow’s claims– the charge that grips our scandal-mongering press– is that King stood by and laughed while an associate raped a woman in his presence. A casual reader would assume that this claim carried the same evidentiary weight as the summaries or partial transcripts that he cites.
That would be a mistake.
The rape claim is from “a newly-released summary document from [Assistant FBI Director] Sullivan’s personal file on King,” according to Garrow. But the term “summary document” is misleading. The document is a rambling, heavily annotated, and edited narrative allegedly compiled by Sullivan and collected in the 1975 Church Committee review of FBI documents. The claim that King witnessed and laughed at the rape is written in long hand by an unidentified person below the typed allegation of a rape. Garrow cites a contiguous typed reference to an FBI document as though it reinforces the provenance of the salacious charge against King. But there is no reason to believe that it is connected to the scribbled libel that appears to be an afterthought.
It must be stressed that Garrow does not offer a reference to a transcript or a tape for what appears to be Sullivan’s personal attempt to construct an indictment of King. We have no reason to expect a future tape confirming or denying his ugly claim. To be fair to King’s legacy, one must underscore that Sullivan initiated and executed the vile anonymous letter to King suggesting that he commit suicide and threatening exposure if he didn’t. Garrow fails to do so.
To shore up his demonstration of King’s FBI-attested promiscuity and add some National Enquirer spice to his account, Garrow reports the escapades of former baseball pitcher, Don Newcombe, who, like Elvis Presley after him, offered unsolicited celebrity snitching to the President and the FBI. Newcombe had a story about King that merits attention only because it adds scandal.
Close King associate Stanley Levison earns a central place in Garrow’s saga. FBI surveillance of Jack O’Dell and Levinson have served for decades as the basis for red-baiting charges that King was a Communist or crypto-Marxist.
With regard to the Communist connection, Garrow surprisingly discards his hard-and-fast confidence in FBI surveillance. He asserts that “FBI documents emphasised how ‘as of January, 1957, Stanley Levison and Roy Bennett were to become inactive in CP financial operations’” [my emphasis].
But this does not fit the Communist-influence narrative. He scolds the FBI for making too little of Levison’s generous personal contributions to King:
The FBI’s failure ever to cite those figures in its warning memos to Kennedy, coupled in March 1964 with its failure to emphasise Levison’s simultaneous large gifts to King, inexplicably rendered its “secret member” allegation against Levison far less powerful than could have been the case. To have a reported “secret member” writing some of King’s speeches, as the FBI highlighted to Kennedy, was one thing, but the remarkable dollar amounts Levison was bandying about could have made for a much more striking portrayal than the FBI ever painted.
Apparently, the rabidly anti-Communist Hoover FBI was insufficiently vigilant to suit Garrow’s taste. Garrow leaves no innuendo untouched.
Garrow’s account follows a host of other post-mortem smears constructed long after any primary witnesses or participants can respond. Sometimes the claims are salacious (King, Robeson, Aptheker), sometimes revisionist (Shostakovich, Brecht). But in all cases, new “evidence” is discovered or new informants conveniently appear with revelations never subjected to legal adjudication or measured evidentiary standards. In this case with King, none of his alleged intimates ever came forward during his lifetime to expose his supposed indiscretions. Thus, one must either leave the questions as unsettleable personal matters, affirm the charges on the basis of celebrity-mongering rumor, innuendo, or vendetta, or, as with Garrow, trust that the FBI is an objective source with no special animus or motivation, even with regard to hostilely targeted figures on the left.
Of course Garrow differs: “But the FBI’s allegation that King ‘looked on, laughed and offered advice’ as a forcible rape took place right in front of him makes that stance [dismissing the “evidence”] unsupportable by anyone.”
Before our NSA age of wholesale spying on virtually everyone, government intrusion into citizens’ personal lives was viewed as morally reprehensible, and evidence garnered, accordingly, as fatally tainted. Garrow exploits the fact that those standards have been swept away.
The danger of our times, of course, is trial by innuendo in the court of yellow journalism, guilt by association and rumor, slander by anonymous sources, settling vendettas, and the ugly politics of smear. Clearly, Garrow doesn’t share these fears:
King’s far-from monogamous lifestyle, like his binge-drinking, may fit albeit uncomfortably within his existing life story, but the suggestion—actually more than one—that he either actively tolerated or personally employed violence against any woman, even while drunk, poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.
For Garrow, the record is already settled, only to be conclusively affirmed in 2027.
This is a tragic and strange tale of history as promissory note, history as lurid voyeurism, history through the eyes of the state’s police.
Sadly, Garrow’s academic colleagues have been slow to redress this tragedy.