The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall

In the case of Martin Luther King, America’s deep state intersected with politics and civil rights and Thurgood Marshall’s strategy for African American legal equality in some ugly and dangerous ways.

And they intersect at a most unpleasant and unhappy point, one that is largely ignored when putting an optimistic, feel-good gloss over Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights: the infamous MLK sex tape gambit cooked up by the FBI.

The most uncomfortable issue raised by the existence of tapes is not the matter of Dr. King’s human appetites and deficiencies in the area of marital fidelity.  It is the potential for blackmail, the leverage that the FBI and the US government could have brought to bear against Dr. King and his direction of the civil rights movement by exploiting the tapes.

And the case of the tapes also shines an awkward light on the relationship between America’s deep state and another African-American civil rights giant: Thurgood Marshall.

For background, 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, the political civil rights movement served by Dr. King, and the “lawfare” civil rights legal battle fought with similar dedication and personal courage by Thurgood Marshall.

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” with an audio tape purporting to represent King’s sexual activities,  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.

And then there was the NAACP.

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. [261]

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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 1965, 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. [425]

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, with the sex tapes in his safe–and serving as a sword of Damocles over King’s head–Hoover believed he could regard King as something of a beholden asset that could be accessed, guided, cajoled, bullied, and if need be publicly discredited in the course of the Bureau’s operations involving the African American civil rights movement.

King was the idealist who advocated for America “as it could be”.

Hoover and Marshall 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”.

Their lives–and services to the state–followed different paths.

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.  Hoover served as director of the FBI until his death in 1972.  Martin Luther King, of course, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Maybe declaring April 4 as “Martin Luther King Day” would be a more meaningful recognition of Dr. King’s suffering, struggle, and sacrifice.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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