Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice”. The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.
The FBI documents also reveal how its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, authorised top Bureau officials to send Dr King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.
The complete transcripts and surviving recordings are not due to be released until 2027 but when they are made fully available a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable.
On January 31, 1977, US District Judge John Lewis Smith signed an extraordinary court order requiring the Federal Bureau of Investigation to surrender all the fruits of its extensive electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr to the National Archives. “Said tapes and documents,” Smith instructed, shall be “maintained by the Archivist of the United States under seal for a period of fifty years,” or until January 31, 2027.
However, in recent months, hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries concerning King have silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore web site. This has occurred thanks to the provisions of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which mandated the public release of tens of thousands of government documents, many of which got swept up into congressional investigations of US intelligence agencies predating Judge Smith’s order. Winnowing the new King items from amidst the Archive’s 54,602 web-links, many of which lead to multi-document PDFs that are hundreds of pages long, entailed weeks of painstaking work.
The FBI began wiretapping King’s home and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) office in Atlanta on November 8, 1963, pursuant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s written approval. For the previous 18 months, the FBI had insistently told Kennedy that King’s closest and most influential adviser, New York attorney Stanley D. Levison, was a “secret member” of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Kennedy’s aides, and finally his brother—the President of the United States—warned King to cease contact with Levison, but King’s promised compliance was dissembling: he and Levison communicated indirectly through another attorney, Clarence Jones, who, like Levison, was himself already being wiretapped by the FBI. Presented with evidence of King’s duplicity, plus FBI claims that King had told Levison that he was a Marxist, a reluctant Attorney General approved the FBI’s request to place King under direct surveillance too.
Unbeknownst to Kennedy, part of the FBI’s motivation in seeking to tap King stemmed from something it had learned just prior to the August 28 March on Washington, when King had stayed at Jones’s wiretapped Bronx home to work on his soon-to-be-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As one internal FBI memo reported, “King, who is married, maintains intimate relationships with at least three women, one in Atlanta, one in Mt Vernon, New York, and one in Washington, DC . . . King’s extramarital affairs while posing as a minister of the gospel leave him highly susceptible to coercion and possible blackmail,” presumably by knowledgeable communists.
Within weeks, the FBI’s wiretap on King’s Atlanta home confirmed the Bureau’s expectations. On December 15 King “contacted a girlfriend by the name of Lizzie Bell,” and the FBI mobilised to “determine more background information regarding this girl”. Six days later, “King was in contact with a girlfriend in Los Angeles”, Dolores Evans, the wife of a black dentist. California agents were tasked to investigate Evans “in connection with counter-intelligence program”, i.e. the Bureau’s subsequently notorious COINTELPRO dirty tricks playbook. That same day King was “in contact with another girlfriend, Barbara Meredith”, a member of his Ebenezer Baptist Church congregation, and “a file was opened on Barbara Meredith in order to determine more information regarding her background and activities in connection with counter-intelligence”.
Wiretap summaries like these were supposed to be sealed pursuant to Judge Smith’s 1977 order, but by then the Department of Justice had forced the FBI to share many of its King records with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, often called the Church Committee after the name of its chairman, Idaho Democrat Frank Church. In turn, all of the FBI’s documents relating to the Church Committee and the subsequent House Select Committee on Assassinations came to be covered by the 1992 Kennedy assassination records act.
In December 1963, the information from the Atlanta wiretaps about King’s expansive private life whetted the FBI’s appetite for recordings more intrusive and graphic than could be obtained via telephone lines. Knowing how frequently King travelled to major US cities, the FBI resolved to plant microphone bugs in his hotel rooms. In this endeavour the prime decision-maker was not long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover but Assistant Director William C. Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division. With Supreme Court oral arguments in a case from Alabama, New York Times Co v. Sullivan—in which four black clergy supporters of King, plus the newspaper, had been socked with a $500,000 state court judgment—scheduled for January 6 and 7, 1964, King and a variety of ministerial friends were scheduled to be in Washington, DC, for a three-night stay. Immediately after the new year, FBI Washington Field Office security supervisor Ludwig Oberndorf summoned the office’s senior “sound man”, Special Agent Wilfred L. Bergeron, as well as Special Agent William Welch, the office’s “hotel contact man”. Waiting in Oberndorf’s office was Assistant Director Sullivan, who told the assembled agents that “FBI interest in King was a national security matter” on account of his “communist contacts”, Bergeron told Church Committee interviewers in another newly-available document.
Welch had ascertained that King and his party would be staying at the historic Willard Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue just east of the White House, and Welch introduced Bergeron to a Willard manager who arranged for Bergeron to “survey” the rooms in question. Bergeron then “placed a transmitter in each of two lamps and then through the hotel contact, it was arranged to have the housekeeper change the lamps in two rooms which had been set aside for King and his party”. In two other nearby rooms Bergeron and fellow Special Agent William D. Campbell set up “radio receivers and tape recorders” prior to when King and his friends first checked in on January 5. Staying in one of the two targeted rooms was King’s friend Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist Church and, like King, the holder of a PhD from the Boston University School of Theology. Kearse “had brought to Washington several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”, a newly-released summary document from Sullivan’s personal file on King relates, and Kearse invited King and his friends to come and meet the women. “The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,”Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.
While that claim appears only as an annotation, other similar marginalia, e.g. “more on this” one page prior, suggestthat Sullivan was seeking an expanded, more detailed indictment of King’s behaviour. The document’s recently-released final pages, narrating events until March 30, 1968, suggest that the unfinished revision was abandoned following King’s assassination on April 4. Without question Sullivan and his aides had both the microphone-transmitted tape-recording, and a subsequent full transcript at hand while they were annotating their existing typescript; in 1977 Justice Department investigators would publicly attest to how their own review of both the tapes and the transcripts showed them to be genuine and accurate. Throughout the 1960s, when no precedent for the public release of FBI documents existed or was even anticipated, Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day. Similarly, they 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.
Who shot MLK?
FOUR DECADES OF DISINFORMATION.