When the FBI Targeted the Poor People’s Campaign

An FBI scholar argues that recently unearthed surveillance documents aren’t proof of anything about Martin Luther King. They do, however, show how the bureau tried to destroy the Poor People’s Movement.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967 at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

As a historian of the FBI and US social movements, I’ve been paying close attention to the furor that has erupted in response to historian David Garrow’s sensational essay on Martin Luther King Jr’s sex life published in a conservative British magazine. Garrow — who authored the 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. and won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 biography of the civil rights icon — made shocking new claims about King based on findings in recently declassified FBI documents. Among other things, Garrow enumerates vivid details of King’s extramarital affairs, patronage of prostitutes, and participation in orgies. Most shocking, he claims that in January 1964 King watched while a male colleague raped a young woman in a hotel room.

Professional historians, journalists, and respected elders of the civil rights movement have been swift to reply, the majority with strong criticism. Historians have raised important critiques of Garrow, questioning his professional ethics, calling out his lack of historical context, and challenging his sloppy analysis of FBI surveillance documents culled from the National Archives’ massive digital cache of recently declassified John F. Kennedy assassination records.

A problem runs throughout the debate, however. Some historians have made the mistake of categorically dismissing the reliability of FBI surveillance records as historical sources. None of these historians are experts on the FBI. Garrow, on the other hand, has held up his credentials as a historian of the FBI to defend his article. In an interview, he claimed to have “received 100% support from all . . . FBI scholars whom I’ve been in touch with.”

I am one of the FBI scholars who emailed Garrow, but I did not do so to express support for his highly problematic essay. I wrote asking Garrow to share missing pages of the FBI surveillance report he used as the basis for his most serious allegation about Dr King. Garrow obliged and informed me that despite the uproar over his article, I was the only person who had inquired for this key piece of evidence.

After carefully studying the FBI documents, I have concluded that the “evidence” Garrow cited for his rape accusation is inconclusive. At the same time, however, we cannot reject the FBI sources out of hand.

A core problem with Garrow’s article centers not on the nature of the surveillance documents he uncovered, but on how he interpreted and presented these sources. A reevaluation of Garrow’s evidence sheds light on an important story he chose not to tell: how, in early 1968, the FBI sought to undermine the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement for racial and economic justice that, if successful, would have fundamentally transformed America’s social landscape.

Garrow’s key source was an untitled forty-four-page draft of a report summarizing the Bureau’s years of surveillance of Dr King. The version linked from Garrow’s article was missing its first seven pages and its final pages; these are what he emailed me at my request. As a whole, the document shows that the FBI’s domestic security division, headed by the notorious assistant director William C. Sullivan, was compiling scurrilous information on King in an effort to undermine upcoming large demonstrations in Washington, DC.

The demonstrations were being organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial coalition led by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that intended to use nonviolent direct action as a step toward overcoming America’s systemic racism and economic inequality. As King explained in a sermon four days before his murder, “We are coming to Washington . . . because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”

The FBI report’s final section reveals the Bureau’s motives. After four consecutive summers of increasingly destructive urban rioting, the FBI feared that the Poor People’s March could devolve into another melee of looting, burning, and clashes between black youth and police. Recent events in Memphis seemed to confirm these fears. On March 28, 1968, Dr King was in the city leading a march to support black striking sanitation workers when a group of angry youth splintered off and began smashing downtown shop windows. Riot police responded immediately with tear gas and swinging truncheons. Citing a TIME magazine article, the FBI noted that the violence resulted in sixty-two injuries, 282 arrests, $400,000 in damaged property, and the death of one “looter” (the boy’s name was Larry Payne; TIME described him as “a 16-year-old Negro shotgunned by police”). The FBI concluded, “The meaning of the Memphis riot to Washington is ominously clear. There is no assurance that if [King] brings his Poor Peoples’ Army of 3,000 or more to the Nation’s Capital, he will be able to control those involved.”

The FBI titled the final section of its report “Advocacy of Violence.” Portions are redacted, but none of the available text provides evidence of this claim. Instead, the FBI faults King for not stopping rioters, for advocating nonviolent civil disobedience, and for supposedly using “the possibility of violence . . . as a lever to attempt to pressure Congress into action.”

These statements are disingenuous. FBI agents knew that King remained committed to nonviolence because they had the transcripts of the recent sermon in which he warned that, due to the threat of nuclear warfare, humanity faced the choice of “nonviolence or nonexistence.”

The issue was not that Dr King had given up on nonviolence, but that he had come to recognize rioting as an inevitable response to entrenched state violence, including racist police violence and the violence of war. A campaign of mass nonviolent direct action, he believed, was the only solution to the American state violence that perpetuated poverty and racism at home and abroad. As King put it a year earlier in his speech opposing the war in Vietnam, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

The FBI’s willingness to bend the truth needs to be kept in mind while analyzing the report Garrow used as the basis for his inflammatory allegations. It is also important to understand the FBI’s report as part of a longer history of surveillance and counterintelligence directed at Dr King and the black freedom movement.

Led by the infamous director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI targeted King with telephone and microphone surveillance from 1963 to 1966 under the pretext of investigating SCLC’s links to the Communist Party. The FBI’s campaign to discredit King reached a climax in November 1964, when William Sullivan mailed him a tape recording of his hotel room affairs along with a letter urging him to commit suicide.

During the mid-1960s, the FBI shifted focus away from King while making increased efforts to prevent “urban disorders.” Apparently, the FBI renewed its interest in King in early 1968 as officials sought to prevent civil disruption in the nation’s capital. As I explain in my forthcoming book, this was part of a pattern in which the FBI perpetuated institutional racism by attempting to preempt rioting with surveillance and counterintelligence while tacitly approving local police agencies’ violence against people of color.

In this context, the FBI dedicated a section of its report to Dr King’s alleged “immoral conduct” based on surveillance from microphones hidden in SCLC members’ hotel rooms. Garrow focused on two of the report’s claims.

The first is a typed summary of a sexual assault alleged to have been carried out by a “Baptist minister” from Baltimore — identified by Garrow as Logan Kearse — who was staying at Washington’s Willard Hotel with King on January 5, 1964. According to the FBI, Reverend Kearse brought along several “female parishioners” and invited King and other SCLC leaders to his room, where they “discussed which women . . . would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts” (“unnatural” likely referenced oral sex). “When one of the women protested that she did not approve,” the report claims, “the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her.” The text includes a parenthetical citation to a specific earlier FBI surveillance report (100-3-116-762) that is not publicly available.

The second documentation is an accompanying note handwritten by Sullivan or one of his men who was suggesting edits for the report’s final draft. Regarding the alleged assault, the note reads, “King looked on, laughed, and offered advice.”

Much of the controversy surrounding Garrow’s article has centered on the handwritten note.

In response, Garrow outlined his methods for evaluating FBI sources. Unlike intelligence from informants, he explained, “when information came from telephone wiretaps and hotel microphones . . . the FBI’s accuracy was very high.” Garrow also initially stressed that, because the report was top secret, agents had no motivation to lie.

But Sullivan and his men were perfectly willing to stretch the truth. The report’s dishonest “Advocacy of Violence” section makes this clear. While it is true that top-secret surveillance documents often contain accurate information, a historian must examine their primary sources critically, especially when dealing with an agency that actively opposed movements for social equality.

We will never know what the FBI sought to do with the information it was compiling. Were they planning to leak information to the press, other law enforcement agencies, or the White House? Did they intend to secretly release information to King’s associates to sow distrust within the Poor People’s Campaign?

At any rate, on April 4, 1968, the FBI’s political objectives were met through other means by someone else: a white racist with an assault rifle. The Poor People’s Campaign went on despite King’s assassination, but with much of the wind taken out of its sails, and without achieving its goals.

Garrow should have explained this critical context. Yet we cannot dismiss the FBI report’s claims altogether. The FBI’s typed assertion that King was in a hotel room when a sexual assault took place actually holds more weight than the handwritten commentary.

Critics have questioned why, if this information is accurate, the FBI did not use it to discredit Dr King sooner. There are several possible answers. For one, publicizing such information would have raised embarrassing questions about why the Bureau was spying on civil rights activists in the first place, and why agents listening in from a nearby hotel room did not intervene to help a young black woman while she was being assaulted. FBI officials may have also felt that their evidence was not strong enough to hold up in court. Another reason could be that white male FBI agents were more concerned with policing black men’s transgressions of the period’s racialized sexual norms (including King’s affairs with white women) than they were with a sexual assault against a black woman.

Garrow’s source does not constitute incontrovertible evidence on its own, but in our outrage over his irresponsible methods of publicizing this information, we cannot discount the possibility of corroborating evidence emerging in the future.

If it does turn out that King was accessory to a sexual assault, we will have to grapple with this. But was Garrow right to assert that “a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable”? Was he right to attempt such a reckoning on his own?

The answer to the latter question is no. We can only speculate on the answer to the former.

But in the meantime, we have a great deal of reckoning to do with America’s broader patterns of violence, including sexual violence and state violence. As historians continue sifting through declassified FBI documents, and as today’s social movements confront the latest forms of mass surveillance, we must also reckon with intelligence agencies’ ongoing efforts to uphold America’s violent status quo.