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FBI's Vicious Letter To King Holds Lessons On Surveillance, Hindsight

William Sullivan, former assistant director of the FBI, chats with newsmen prior to his appearance, on CBS' "Face The Nation," in 1975. Sullivan is believed to have written an anonymous letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticizing him for his personal life. Harvey Georges/AP hide caption

toggle caption Harvey Georges/AP

William Sullivan, former assistant director of the FBI, chats with newsmen prior to his appearance, on CBS' "Face The Nation," in 1975. Sullivan is believed to have written an anonymous letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticizing him for his personal life.

Harvey Georges/AP

The Rev. Martin Luther King makes a statement at the Justice Department in Washington on Dec. 1, 1964 after a meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Under Hoover's leadership, the FBI investigated King and his personal life for years. Bob Schutz/AP hide caption

toggle caption Bob Schutz/AP

The Rev. Martin Luther King makes a statement at the Justice Department in Washington on Dec. 1, 1964 after a meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Under Hoover's leadership, the FBI investigated King and his personal life for years.

Bob Schutz/AP

For decades, a graphic letter sent from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was thought to only exist in a censored form. The letter focused on King's sex life and his extramarital affairs. Yale historian Beverly Gage, who's working on a biography of Hoover, recently uncovered an unredacted version of the letter at the National Archives. It begins:

"King,

In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast."

Gage wrote about her discovery for the New York Times:

"The word 'evil' makes six appearances in the text, beginning with an accusation: 'You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.' In the paragraphs that follow, the recipient's alleged lovers get the worst of it. They are described as 'filthy dirty evil companions' and 'evil playmates,' all engaged in 'dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk.' The effect is at once grotesque and hypnotic, an obsessive's account of carnal rage and personal betrayal. 'What incredible evilness,' the letter proclaims, listing off 'sexual orgies,' 'adulterous acts' and 'immoral conduct.' Near the end, it circles back to its initial target, denouncing him as an 'evil, abnormal beast.' "

Gage spoke with NPR, to share a little more about the letter, its back story, and the lessons it still holds for law enforcement officers and journalists.

Gage said that when she stumbled on the document, while going through photos she had taken of "super-special secret files" from Hoover's office kept by the National Archives, she was surprised.

"I knew there was probably some new material in there, but I didn't know what it would be," Gage told NPR. "I was amazed. This really is one of the most famous documents that there is. It's sort of like this Holy Grail."

Gage said the letter probably wasn't written by Hoover himself, but by William Sullivan, an assistant director at the FBI, and a deputy to J. Edgar Hoover. Gage wrote in The Times that Sullivan is believed to have sent the letter anonymously, just days after Hoover called King the "most notorious liar in the country," at a press conference in 1964.

The letter and what it revealed about the psyche of Hoover's FBI is nothing new. But Gage said that what the FBI did with the letter is more interesting.

"The FBI took the information they had about King's sex life and talked to a lot of friendly reporters in Washington and elsewhere," Gage said, but the press wanted no part of it — partly because press culture was very different then.

Gage pointed out that this was the era of John F. Kennedy, and the media wasn't reporting his affairs either. She also said lots of journalists in the '60s didn't want to tarnish King's cause.

"I think reporters were also quite aware that this was a pretty targeted effort to discredit Martin Luther King — and by extension the Civil Rights Movement in general — and were kind of leery of playing into that campaign."

Gage said it's impossible to know what would have happened if the letter had been released.

"The tragic implication is that King would have been discredited and he would have never been able to become the revered public leader he became, that it would have done a lot of damage to the Civil Rights movement," she said.

Enduring Lessons

Gage also said there are lessons in the letter, in what led the FBI to investigate King, and in what the media chose to do with the story.

"The first lesson is that this is a really good example about why you need to be cautious about how much it is that intelligence agencies know about people's private and sexual lives," said Gage. "And this is obviously an issue at the moment in terms of online communication."

She pointed out that the investigation into King's personal life began as a national security inquiry. Officials were looking into possible ties between King and communists and former communists, who the FBI thought could be Soviet spies. But that investigation quickly moved from matters of national security to those of King's sex life.

The other lesson, said Gage, is really one of hindsight.

"It's very hard to know what's going on in the present as it's happening," Gage said.

She said the first public knowledge of the letter didn't come about until more than a decade after it was written. But just because people revere Dr. King now and consider the FBI's actions reprehensible doesn't mean they would have felt the same way in the 1960s.

"It's always a little bit easier to make those judgments once we've all agreed that Martin Luther King was a hero, whereas in the '60s ... he was this hugely controversial figure," said Gage. "When lots of people really did think he was a threat to the social order, it's much harder to make those kinds of judgments."

Ultimately, said Gage, she's happy things worked out the way they did.

"We can't really know what would have happened," she said. "But my own impulse is that's it's very, very good that the press did not cooperate with the FBI in this instance."

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