Two years ago, renowned historian David J. Garrow was dismissive of newly released FBI files claiming Martin Luther King Jr. was a “whole-hearted” communist.
“The number one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of doing this,” Garrow said in an interview with The Washington Post, “is just because you see it in a top-secret document, just because someone had said it to the FBI, doesn’t mean it’s all accurate.”
Garrow, 66, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Bearing the Cross,” his 1986 biography of King, noted that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was out to discredit the civil rights leader and said FBI files should be treated with skepticism.
As he faces a wave of criticism from other historians for an essay published Thursday in Standpoint, a conservative British cultural magazine, he now says some FBI files are more reliable than others.
Garrow claims new evidence shows King, whose extramarital affairs have long been known, was a “sexual libertine,” alleging sexual activities with dozens of women and describing them in graphic detail. One of the claims would constitute a crime if true.
His evidence? FBI files purported to be summaries of recordings of King and his colleagues in the 1960s when their rooms were being bugged and phones wiretapped by Hoover. The summaries were apparently inadvertently included in the John F. Kennedy files maintained by the National Archives and released online in 2017 and 2018. Garrow discovered the inadvertent release.
It is not known whether tapes and transcripts that correspond to the summaries exist. All of the King recordings are under court seal at the National Archives until Jan. 31, 2027. Garrow acknowledges that he has not listened to them or viewed transcripts. But he argues the new documents pose “so fundamental a challenge to [King’s] historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.”
Garrow’s willingness to believe that the FBI summaries are accurate is being questioned by other historians. At the time the reports were made, the FBI was engaged in a years-long disinformation campaign to undermine King’s standing and at one point encouraged him to kill himself.
The King Center in Atlanta declined to comment on Garrow’s essay.
In a statement provided to The Post, King’s personal lawyer Clarence B. Jones vociferously denied the claims, adding, “J. Edgar Hoover is laughing in his grave today.”
Donna Murch, a Rutgers University historian who specializes in the civil rights movement, said the story had a “strange trail of evidence … that seems just very, very flimsy to me.”
The most incendiary claim is made in a handwritten notation by an unknown person on one of the typed summaries. If accurate, the notation indicates that King was witness to a sexual assault.
“I would question the veracity of an anonymous, handwritten note on an FBI report,” said Yale historian Glenda Gilmore, who has worked extensively with FBI reports on civil rights activists. Files such as these contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”
Johns Hopkins University historian Nathan Connolly, who has also examined FBI files, said, “I would be deeply suspicious.”
That the allegations “can just be put out there by a historian as if it happened is obviously the height of being archivally irresponsible,” Connolly said.
In 1981, Garrow published a book about King and the FBI, chronicling many of the tactics the FBI used to surveil and attack King. In the other sections of the Standpoint article, he further details some of those tactics, using documents he discovered in the JFK files.
Despite this, he thinks the summaries made by FBI agents who were spying on King are accurate, he said in an interview with The Post. Different types of records warrant different levels of trust in their accuracy, he said. The files claiming King was communist “are coming literally third- or fourth-hand from a human informant,” he said, so their accuracy is “highly dubious.”
“But with the electronic surveillance records, those are very highly reliable, other than when the FBI can’t understand who’s talking,” Garrow said.
Connolly disagreed, saying the culture of the FBI at the time was that agents were “sent out with marching orders, not simply to recount what is happening on the ground.”
Gilmore said the same: “Often agents and informers were writing toward an overarching narrative that clearly impacted their judgment and activated their impulse to please their superiors in Washington.”
“I have no way of knowing if these reports represent the reality that will be revealed when the tapes of King speaking or the audios on the recorded incidents are opened to researchers,” Gilmore said. “But neither could Garrow.”
Garrow has come under attack from other historians before. In 2017, his biography of former president Barack Obama, “Rising Star,” was also a source of controversy for its harsh tone, and for Garrow’s swipes at other Obama biographers.
But Garrow said “close to three dozen” historians, authors and journalists had read his article before it published “and are 100 percent supportive” and had given him “zero criticism.” He said that “if random people who spend their time on Twitter are unhappy about it,” then “their unhappiness is with the JFK Records Act and the National Archives.”
Garrow listed Yale historian Beverly Gage as one of his supporters. But when she was contacted by The Post, Gage, who is writing a biography of Hoover, cautioned: “This information was initially gathered as part of a deliberate and aggressive FBI campaign to discredit King. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the information is false. But it does mean that we should read the documents in that context, understanding that the FBI was looking for information that it could weaponize and was viewing events through the lens of its own biases and agenda.”
In 1956, Hoover initiated a counterintelligence program, known as Cointelpro, that sought to surveil, infiltrate and discredit suspected communists and, later, civil rights leaders. Starting in 1963, the FBI wiretapped King’s home and office and bugged his hotel rooms.
In November 1964, Hoover publicly called King “the most notorious liar in the country.” A few days later, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, received an anonymous letter sent to the King home. The author, who claimed to be African American, accused Martin Luther King of being a “a colossal fraud” and “a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile.” The letter suggested King would be exposed unless he killed himself. The letter came in a package that also allegedly included audio evidence of King’s infidelity.
Years later, a draft of the letter was found in the files of William C. Sullivan, Hoover’s top lieutenant for domestic intelligence. Sullivan later suggested Hoover was behind the letter.
Garrow originally wrote the article for the Guardian, which then declined to publish it, according to Standpoint editor Michael Mosbacher. In 2018, Garrow also approached The Post, which decided not to pursue it. Both the Guardian and The Post declined to explain their reasons.
Garrow’s allegations were first published in the Sunday Times in London, which viewed a copy of the Standpoint article. The Daily Mail followed, catching the attention of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who tweeted that King was “quite a sicko.” D’Souza, whose claims about civil rights are frequently debunked by historians on Twitter, was interviewed Tuesday night by Fox News host Laura Ingraham and said the #MeToo movement had to “take it seriously.”
Garrow said a “painful historical reckoning” was “inevitable” given what he’d learned about King’s behavior.
Murch, the Rutgers historian, said Garrow did not provide adequate context about the new documents. She noted that some right-leaning media outlets and blogs, such as the American Conservative and Free Republic, had parroted Garrow’s claims and were framing it as the #MeToo movement “coming for” King and his legacy.
“Because it’s framed as a #MeToo claim, it’s framed as something subversive,” Murch said. “But actually this is a long tradition of sexualization of black politics and black political figures as a way to undermine legitimate political claims.”
Asked whether he was concerned that his allegations against King might damage his own reputation, Garrow replied: “No. Not at all. I think that’s impossible.”
correction: A previous version of this story misidentified King's personal attorney. He is Clarence B. Jones.
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