As everyone who reads this web site knows, the attempt to smear the four people that it focuses on—JFK, RFK, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—is an ongoing affair. The idea is to indulge in character assassination, and few organizations are better at it than the FBI and CIA. Occasionally a lower body like the Los Angeles Police Department will dip into the dirty waters. For instance, before he passed on LA assistant DA John Miner called a press conference to publicize tapes that were supposed to reveal a relationship between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. This story was eagerly picked up domestically and universally misreported. Miner did not have tapes. He had notes on tapes and some observers have shown his notes turned out to be dubious (see this article).
Longtime Martin Luther King scholar David Garrow has written a new and controversial essay on King, informed by an interpretive analysis of recently released FBI documents. The documents, according to Garrow, reveal darker and more troubling character flaws to the revered civil-rights icon which require, according to Garrow, a harsh reevaluation of King’s personal legacy. By accepting the veracity of summaries of FBI surveillance transcriptions from the mid-1960s, Garrow is using material which cannot be verified to, in effect, publicize the ugliest features of the FBI’s acknowledged campaign to discredit King. This question of veracity led to the essay’s rejection by major mainstream news outlets such as, among others, The Guardian and Washington Post, to whom an apparently determined Garrow had been offering his essay since late last year. The essay has since been published by a lesser-known British online journal called Standpoint.
There is nothing, on the surface, factually incorrect in Garrow’s presentation, as links to the documents in question confirm the accuracy of his source quotations. The controversy, and an accompanying peer rejection, rests on Garrow’s stated belief that the material as presented represents an accurate objective rendering of the content of surveillance audio tapes and their transcriptions, currently stored under seal at the National Archives. These items are not scheduled for release until 2027 and Garrow himself did not have access to them. In context, as Yale historian Beverly Gage noted in response to Garrow’s claims: “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.”1
John Hopkins University professor Nathan Connolly struck a similar theme: “If the FBI had had information about King having been party to a sexual assault or observing a rape, that would be exactly the kind of information they would have used to bury him. The fact that this had not come to light and was not used for any previous campaign to discredit King gives me pause about considering it a credible accusation.”2
Garrow’s essay, as published by Standpoint, is titled “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King”, with a sub-heading proclaiming “Newly-revealed FBI documents portray the great civil rights leader as a sexual libertine who ‘laughed’ as a forcible rape took place.”3 This alleged incident, supposedly occurring at Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel in January 1964, has been the most referenced “revelation” following publication. Other incidents highlighted by Garrow include supposed “orgies” at both the Willard and in Las Vegas, a possible illegitimate child, and references to numerous supposed liaisons with individual women in various locales. While the latter information has been generally known for some time, and has been understood in the context of severe violations of personal privacy by the FBI, Garrow now maintains that the number of alleged sexual partners, as revealed in the new documents, shocked him and has forced his reevaluation: “I always thought there were 10 to 12 other women. Not 40 to 45.”4 The FBI documents, however, appear to describe any female acquaintance of King as a “girlfriend”, and assume any private meeting as a sexual liaison.
King, it is apparent, did maintain intimate friendships outside of his marriage. This has been noted for decades, most recently in the three volume biography by Taylor Branch, who did not rely on FBI documents alone to present his case. These friendships were lasting and involved the mutual consent of adult persons. These friendships, in other words, were the private business of individuals and are largely none of anyone else’s business. If King had been publicly advocating against sexual activity or assumed a position of strict morality, then revelation of a core hypocrisy would be of public interest. That is not the case here, and the revelations over the years have been rightly seen as an attempt to discredit King and blunt his influence. Garrow’s new presentation of King as a selfish perverse “libertine” who would react indifferently or even encourage sexual assaults is an outlier, and it is worthwhile taking a closer look at the documentation he claims supports this position.
Garrow’s most explosive claim involves a sexual assault which allegedly occurred at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. in early January 1964. King and an accompanying party travelled to Washington to monitor a Supreme Court hearing which involved a large punitive fine directed by a state court against several colleagues. King and his party had reserved two rooms at the Willard, information which made its way to the FBI.
The Church Committee interviewed former Special Agent Wilfred Bergeron of the FBI’s Washington field office in June of 1975. Bergeron described being instructed by FBI Assistant Director William Sullivan to bug the King party’s rooms at the Willard Hotel: “(Bergeron) advised that he had 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.”5 Two nearby rooms held FBI agents, wireless receivers, and tape recorders. Bergeron told the Committee that, at the time, he only listened briefly to the transmissions to check that they were functioning properly. He was also asked if he ever reviewed logs or transcripts of these recordings, to which he replied he “probably” had, but could not recall any of the content.
Having described the King party as a “variety of ministerial friends”, Garrow then refers to the recently released documents’ description of the assault: “On January 5, 1964, King and several SCLC officials checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. In a room nearby was a Baptist minister from Baltimore, Maryland, who had brought to Washington several women “parishioners” of his church. The group sat 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.” A handwritten note next to the typewritten text states “King looked on, laughed, and offered advice.” An FBI file number is typed below (100-3-116-762).
Garrow identifies the Baltimore minister as King’s friend Logan Kearse, and also claims that Kearse was staying “in one of the two targeted rooms.” Garrow insists the alleged assault was therefore tape-recorded and the description of the event appearing in the document must have been derived from the transcription of the recording. This is by no means a sure thing, and it is not clear how Garrow could have arrived at such an assertion other than a series of assumptions. The FBI’s description quoted above differentiates “King and several SCLC officials” checking into the hotel, from Kearse who is said to be in a “room nearby”. Further, Bergeron “probably” reviewed transcripts from the two rooms, but could not recall a sexual assault, even as he knew King specifically was being targeted by senior FBI officials.
The description of the January 5 alleged incident also does not include any specific quotation of recorded dialogue, unlike a description of events the following evening (January 6) which the document turns to next. In this instance, according to the text, a dozen persons “nearly equally divided between men and women and including King, officers of the SCLC, and others bearing the title of ‘Reverend’—participated in a sex orgy. Excessive consumption of alcohol and the use of the vilest language imaginable served only as backdrop to acts of degeneracy and depravity … Many of those present engaged in sexual acts, natural as well as unnatural.” Dr King is directly quoted twice in reference to “unnatural” sexual acts. This event, then, may well have been recorded, but whether the activity constituted an “orgy” or is better described as a group of persons unwinding over drinks and bawdy discussion cannot be determined at this time. What specifically from the presumed audio recording led investigators to determine that “sexual acts, natural as well as unnatural” were occurring, may yet prove to be largely imaginative speculation.
The document goes on to refer to an event which allegedly occurred several months later in Las Vegas, “the scene of another of King’s sex orgies.” Garrow details the supposed liaison over four prurient paragraphs, working from the original description presented in a letter delivered to the Las Vegas FBI office from a “confidential source” who worked for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.6 This official, having received information which “indicated” a local prostitute may have “been laying up” with King during his late April visit to the city, took on his own initiative to track the woman down and interview her as “it might shed an interesting side light to King’s extra curricular activities.” There is no indication the FBI tried to independently verify any of the story’s information, so it stands as a second-hand account which may or may not be accurate. Certainly the graphic detail may be more indicative of the subjective intent of the interviewer than the objective recollections of the interview subject. That is, a degree of coaching the witness or after-the-fact embellishment cannot be ruled out.
The bizarre tale involves the distinguished gospel singer Clara Ward, who, according to the story, acts as both procurer and participant in activity which gradually involves four persons. According to the report, the prostitute eventually became “scared” due to the inebriation and “vile language” of her clients, and she managed to make an exit, telling her interlocutor “that was the worst orgy I’ve ever gone through.” Skepticism regarding this report is warranted. The identification of King is hardly conclusive. Additionally, according to a biography written by her sister, Clara Ward had earlier in life been relentlessly driven by a domineering mother toward career success and away from romantic attachment and sexual expression. Her personal unhappiness, which led to alcoholism and poor health, was offset only by a long attachment to Reverend C.L. Franklin, whose daughter Aretha was mentored by Ward.7 Despite this background, the incident as described, which would have occurred about a week after Ward’s fortieth birthday, sees her as experienced and comfortable in group sex scenarios with famous civil rights leaders and strangers, including activity which even a Las Vegas prostitute would claim as “disgusting.”8
This is salacious gossip, or “opposition research” in current parlance, not meant to be fact-checked. The confidential source from the Nevada Gaming Control Board finishes his account with: “the good doctor (King) doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches, or does he?” The Las Vegas field office would retransmit the information in form of a secret document sent directly to Hoover, where it joined other collections of gossip and rumor, along with wiretap results, in the King file. As the FBI’s Alan Belmont once said, quoted by Garrow, referring to the Willard Hotel: “We do not contemplate dissemination of this information at this time but will utilize it, together with results of additional future coverage, in our plan to expose King for what he is.”
So is Garrow not, albeit decades later, assisting Hoover’s FBI in exposing King “for what he is”, or rather what the FBI says he is (was)?
Garrow explained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I felt a complete obligation to confront this stuff. I did not feel I had a choice. I have always felt spiritually informed by King and yes, this changed it. I have not heard his voice much this past year.”9
Referring to the alleged rape at the Willard Hotel and King’s alleged callous response, Garrow continued: “I think that this is very important in the whole #MeToo context. Not only is (King) witnessing this, but the FBI is in the next room and doesn’t do anything.” Garrow picked up on this during an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, claiming the new material “is more about gender than about race”, and expressing his concern on having publicized this information that no one “has asked me about the woman who was raped.”10
This theme is picked up by the British publisher of the essay, who describes King as a “sexual predator.” An editorial justifying the publication of Garrow’s information states: “When the sexual mores of cardinals, presidents, writers, film directors and producers have all been exposed, why is it that questioning the behaviour of a civil rights icon is still beyond the pale? Is not the whole point of the #MeToo movement that no one, regardless of their stature or position, should be above examination of their personal behaviour?”11
The editorial’s author, Michael Mosbacher, continues: “The wiretaps reveal (King) to be the Harvey Weinstein of the civil rights movement. They show that he was sexually voracious, frequented orgies and was present when his friend, pastor Dr Logan Kearse, raped a woman in a hotel room.”
As detailed above, while wiretaps may reveal King as possessing “a very off-colored, obscene sense of humor”, as has long been acknowledged, as far as the major sexual allegations discussed by Garrow—that King witnessed and responded callously to a rape, that he participated in an orgy, and then a second orgy in Las Vegas—were, first, not in fact “wiretapped” or completely verified; second, may possibly be recorded but subject to imaginative interpretation and as yet unverified; and third, relies entirely on second-hand information, which may have been coached, was initiated by a non-objective source, and is unverified.
Unfortunately, the #MeToo movement has displayed at times a certain neo-Jacobin zeal whereby, in the rush to a better world, reputations have been destroyed with little regard to establishing fact or due process. Garrow’s appeal to such forces may be an effort to gain traction for his essay, but there is a danger that the reputational smearing of King’s character based on unverified information might snowball into unpredictable misunderstandings of civil rights history.
Garrow’s 1981 book on King and the FBI remains a solid account of the serial violations of MLK’s constitutional rights, including the obvious inference that King’s ties to Stanley Levinson were used as a pretext to justify surveillance and that the FBI was less concerned with supposed communist infiltration than they were with gaining the means to disrupt King’s influence through “weaponizing” information on his private life. There is a fair amount in Garrow’s new essay which updates information regarding these programs, and it is worth a look for that, at least. In context, the unverified salacious content which Garrow has unfortunately chosen to highlight was fully part of a policy to use official powers to gain advantage over those who would challenge the status quo.
1 “Historians Attack Pitt Professor David Garrow’s Martin Luther King Allegations”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 31, 2019, https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2019/05/30/Historians-attack-David-Garrow-s-Martin-Luther-King-allegations-1/stories/201905300167
2 “Biographer Garrow Pens Explosive Report on Martin Luther King, Jr”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution May 30, 2019, https://www.ajc.com/news/breaking-news/biographer-garrow-pens-explosive-report-martin-luther-king/fqPKW1dndGA5g4oAkzRoIJ/
4 “Biographer Garrow Pens Explosive Report on Martin Luther King, Jr”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 30, 2019
8 https://www.archives.gov/files/research/jfk/releases/docid-32989551.pdf#page=77. It is possible that Clara Ward did secure the services of a prostitute in Las Vegas, on or around the time described, coinciding with King’s presence in the city. It is possible that rumors grew from this, such that a local official initiated contact with the prostitute and managed to link whatever occurred with King. That doesn’t make the local official’s report in any way true, or worthy of contemplation decades later. Neither King or Ward are available to dismiss this tale, and so, by focusing on the graphic depictions over four entire paragraphs, Garrow seriously disrespects their memory and legacy.
9 “Biographer Garrow Pens Explosive Report on Martin Luther King Jr”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 30, 2019
10 Note that “the woman who was raped” was never identified, and there is no verification that the incident ever happened in the first place. “Former Pitt Professor Reassessing View of MLK After He Uncovers New FBI Documents”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 1, 2019, https://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2019/06/01/david-garrow-martin-luther-king-jr-fbi-files-bearing-the-cross-pulitzer-prize-pitt/stories/201905310145
11 Standpoint editorial by Michael Mosbacher, https://standpointmag.co.uk/issues/june-2019/telling-difficult-truths/