The document, titled “MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., A CURRENT ANALYSIS,” alleged that Levison had a strong influence on many of King’s activities as the leader of the civil rights movement, from what he said in his speeches and which demonstrations he took part in to where King’s group got its funding.
David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who had written extensively about King, said much of the explosive allegations in the document are neither new nor true.
“The number one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of doing this, 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 told The Washington Post, citing the infamous dossier that contains salacious allegations against President Trump.
It’s no secret that the FBI used invasive surveillance operations throughout the 1960s to collect troves of information on King. Though the agency, then under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, had unearthed embarrassing and sensitive information about the civil rights leader’s personal life, it failed to find evidence of communist ties, Garrow said.
More broadly, the newly released FBI document reveals more about the government’s preoccupation with the Communist Party USA, which by the 1960s had been reduced to a small, marginal group, Garrow said. It also says more about Hoover’s personal hostility against King, whom he had sought to publicly discredit.
“I think the number one takeaway historically is how, even in March of 1968, the FBI continues to be bizarrely preoccupied with how important the Communist Party USA is. . . . The Communist Party, by 1968, is of no importance to anything,” Garrow said. “These incredibly exaggerated statements of communist influence are exactly what the FBI wants to hear.”
Garrow said that the FBI started wiretapping Levison after it realized in early 1962 that he was close to King.
“But day after day, they saw nothing in those wiretaps indicating that Levison was in any way representing the Communist Party or the Soviets, or was being manipulative with King,” he said.
The efforts to pin King as a communist came at a time when the country was still reeling from fears of communist subversion, which had reached a feverish pitch when Sen. Joseph McCarthy rose to national prominence in the 1950s with his probes to expose alleged infiltration in the federal government.
The animosity between King and Hoover intensified in April 1964, after King said that the FBI was “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the Negro in the Deep South.” Months later, Hoover said at a news conference that King was the “most notorious liar in the country.”
In a 2002 article published in the Atlantic, Garrow said the question of whether King was a communist sympathizer had long preoccupied Hoover, as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson. But a piece of information that Hoover did not let Johnson know was that King had made a comment distancing himself from communists.
“There are things I wanted to say renouncing communism in theory, but they would not go along with it. We wanted to say that it was an alien philosophy contrary to us, but they wouldn’t go along with it,” King told adviser Bayard Rustin in May 1965, when King, Garrow wrote, was agonizing over a public statement proclaiming unity in the civil rights movement.
Instead, Garrow wrote, the FBI “continued to distribute utterly misleading reports that declared just the opposite.”
The newly released FBI document described King as “a whole-hearted Marxist who has studied it (Marxism), believes in it and agrees with it, but because of his being a minister of religion, does not dare to espouse it publicly.”
The document alleges that that characterization came from Levison, who passed it on to Gus Hall, then general secretary of the Communist Party USA. Garrow described it as Hall “mouthing off boastfully” to Jack Child, a Communist Party veteran who became an FBI informant.
Garrow is not the only historian to speak about Hoover’s campaign against King and to debunk allegations of his communist ties.
In a November 2014 essay published in the New York Times, Yale University history professor Beverly Gage wrote about a so-called “suicide letter” by an unnamed author to King. The letter called King a “colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that” and denounced him for his alleged lovers. Years later, the Senate’s Church Committee on intelligence overreach confirmed King’s suspicion that the letter had come from the FBI, Gage wrote.
Gage described the letter as “the most notorious and embarrassing example of Hoover’s FBI run amok.”
The FBI also was criticized by a Senate committee that convened in the 1970s to investigate the agency’s domestic intelligence operations.
“Rather than trying to discredit the alleged Communists it believed were attempting to influence Dr. King, the Bureau adopted a curious tactic of trying to discredit the supposed target of Communist Party interest — Dr. King himself,” according to the committee’s report.
The FBI document was among the 676 files that the National Archive released Friday. Among the recent disclosures are more than 500 never-before-seen CIA files that contain information about Lee Harvey Oswald and operatives-turned-Watergate-burglars James McCord and E. Howard Hunt.
Ian Shapira and Michael E. Miller contributed to this story.