Why J. Edgar Hoover Was Right to Spy on Martin Luther King, Jr.

New revelations from secret FBI files show that the civil rights icon had the morals of a goat – and that he had a troubling relationship with Kremlin agents.

Few stories are guaranteed to get liberals in a greater lather than the 1960s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover – the notorious micromanager who was possibly gay and maybe even partly black himself – conducted years of secret surveillance on the civil rights icon has been a sore point with progressives for decades.

What the Bureau reputedly discovered about King, especially his extramarital activities with a string of lovers, hardly seemed to comport with the clergyman’s saintly public image. Neither was it exactly a secret that MLK’s private life verged on the sordid, since members of the martyred minister’s inner circle have previously gone on record about his weakness for women.

Nevertheless, what David Garrow published this week has produced great gnashing of teeth, not least because the author is an esteemed left-liberal historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for a celebrated biography of King. If Professor Garrow has an ideological motive, it’s hardly anti-King, which only makes his findings more painful.

First, let it be noted that Garrow ran his explosive piece in Standpoint, a center-right British magazine, after it was turned down by several mainstream media outlets which didn’t want to touch a story this hot. And hot indeed it is, including details of King’s cavorting with north of 40 women not his wife, as well as seductions of parishioners, full-blown orgies, plus an apparent illegitimate daughter. Worst of all, King reportedly watched and cracked jokes while witnessing the rape of a church-going lady by a friend and fellow man of the cloth. In any age this is shocking stuff, and never more than in the #MeToo era.

Garrow uncovered this unpleasant account in FBI files while diligently researching in the National Archives. In 1977, a Federal court ordered the Bureau’s wiretap recordings of King to be held under seal for 50 years, but some transcripts, once classified, wound up in the archives, thanks to post-Cold War declassifications, where Garrow found them while digging in the files – something which previous historians failed to do.

There can be no doubt of their authenticity. Garrow’s opponents are now coming out of the woodwork and smearing him for telling unpalatable truths, attempting to cast doubt on the archives. The notion that veteran FBI agents would fabricate secret wiretap transcripts which they knew were likely to wind up on the desk of the obsessively detailed-oriented Mr. Hoover is patently absurd.

While King’s revolting sexual conduct is getting all the media attention, that’s not the important part of this story, historically speaking. Garrow’s report includes details about the FBI’s infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which in the 1960s and early 1970s surveilled and employed dirty tricks against radical groups which Hoover assessed as threats to national security. These FBI operations against student radicals and various minority groups like the Black Panthers have generated a great deal of polemical literature. That COINTELPRO’s greatest success was breaking the back of the Ku Klux Klan is less frequently noted.

The FBI has long been criticized for surveilling King, who over the half-century since his assassination has become a secular saint complete with his own Federal holiday (an honor bestowed on no other American). On the Left, it’s an article of faith that Hoover’s motivation for spying on MLK was prejudice, even racism, pure and simple.

Garrow’s account makes clear that was not the case. Hoover’s reason for ordering the Bureau to closely watch King beginning in 1963 was fear of Kremlin influence on the civil rights leader. The essence of this story has been known for decades. Hoover worried about Stanley Levison, a left-wing attorney who entered King’s orbit in late 1956, quickly becoming MLK’s closest confidant. Levison served as all-purpose consigliere to King and authored some of the civil rights leader’s most famous speeches.

Hoover fretted about the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) infiltrating the civil rights movement, particularly because the FBI knew that the party had secret members, known only to CPUSA leadership, who were employed to clandestinely influence non-communist groups. Worse, the Bureau knew that Stanley Levison was one such secret CPUSA member.

They knew this thanks to Jack and Morris Childs, two brothers who joined the party as youths and rose high up, including serving as Soviet spies (any line between the CPUSA and Soviet intelligence existed in theory, not in fact). However, by the 1950s the Childs brothers had flipped and become FBI moles inside the party, passing the Bureau reams of information about the CPUSA’s inner workings as the cornerstone of Operation SOLO, which became one of the FBI’s great Cold War successes.

The Childs told the FBI about Levison’s secret party ties, so the Bureau began watching Levison. They discovered that he was meeting with Viktor Lesiovsky, a Soviet diplomat assigned to the United Nations in New York, who rose to become special assistant to the UN secretary general, but the FBI knew that Lesiovsky was really a KGB officer.

This rang enough alarm bells within the Bureau that Hoover informed President John F. Kennedy about counterintelligence concerns regarding King’s inner circle; these concerns were endorsed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother. This led to a White House meeting on June 22, 1963, during which the president asked King to sever ties with Levison, whom Kennedy termed a “Kremlin agent.” This was the very height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union nearly had a nuclear war between each other a few months before, yet King ultimately refused to part with Levison, who remained MLK’s top adviser until his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. It was King’s unwillingness to cut ties with Levison which led Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to authorize full FBI surveillance of the civil rights leader shortly before President Kennedy’s own assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Garrow adds important detail to this story, including the fact that the FBI was aware of Levison’s role as a major CPUSA bagman. Between 1957 and 1962, Bureau files reveal, Levison gave the party an astonishing $76,500 ($650,000 in 2019). Since Levison was not a wealthy man, this funding can be assumed to have come from the Kremlin in some fashion, since communist parties overseas were funded by the KGB through various clandestine methods.

More troubling still is Garrow’s revelation from FBI files that Levison gifted his new friend King with $10,000 in cash during 1957-58, an amount equivalent to $87,000 today. The Bureau learned of this donation from the IRS, leading Hoover to exasperation. Given Levison’s Kremlin connections, there is reasonable suspicion that this cash came from the KGB too. Which makes the FBI’s apparent failure to inform the White House about Levison’s role as CPUSA bagman, including payments to King, rather difficult to explain.

Garrow concludes his piece with the assessment that what he learned from FBI files about King “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive review possible.” Given the vituperative criticism that Garrow has gotten for publishing his findings, there’s no reason to think that historians and journalists will be eager to dig deeper into the archives about King’s secret life. However, Garrow makes clear that J. Edgar Hoover was right to have grave counterintelligence concerns about the civil rights leader and his secret connections to the Soviet Union. Given high public interest in the clandestine role of Moscow’s spies in American politics, thanks to Donald J. Trump, the role of Stanley Levison, a known Kremlin agent, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle now merits dispassionate examination by experts, not partisans.