The historian and Martin Luther King, Jr. biographer David Garrow recently published an article in the conservative British magazine Standpoint containing allegations that, the headline suggested, rendered Dr. King’s legacy a “troubling” one.
Many of the allegations expand upon already-known aspects of King’s lifestyle, from his drinking to his numerous and consensual extramarital affairs, to his affiliations with members of the Communist Party.
There is one truly new and very serious allegation in Garrow’s article, however. Garrow alleges that in early 1964, in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, King witnessed, abetted and laughed at the rape of a woman by a fellow minister.
If this allegation is true, it is horrific and perhaps unforgivable. Anyone who wields sexual power and violence in violation of another person’s bodily integrity and emotional security deserves to be called to account. The same for men who abet the wielding of power and violence in such ways. No one sits above that truth — even if they are dead, even if they were unquestionably heroic in other facets of life. If the allegation is true, it demands a reckoning — one that would, of necessity, be led not by white men like Garrow but by black women, since black women have always been the most vulnerable members of society to sexual assault (including the alleged victim in that 1964 attack), and because black feminists have always been among this country’s best political thinkers, articulators of freedom, and workers for justice.
And yet we cannot have that reckoning now because we have absolutely no way of knowing if Garrow’s allegations are true.
Let me be clear that this is different than saying the allegation is false. I do not know it to be false and have no way of demonstrating that it is. But what is most important to understand is that David Garrow has no way at all of knowing it is true, and his confidence that it is betrays the work of a historian who is either shockingly naïve or willfully incurious about the sources that provide his information.
Garrow draws the evidence for his article from online files at the National Archives and Records Administration website. Most are PDFs of documents from the 1950s and 1960s created by FBI agents explicitly tasked with surveilling freedom movement activists like King. The ultimate, unsubtle goal of such surveillance was the destruction of the black freedom movement, which government operatives deemed subversive, un-American, “Communistic.” Whatever files FBI agents created during the course of surveilling King and other activists, they all must be understood as serving, in the final analysis, that ultimate goal.
It is not an overstatement to say that such files are essentially the product of self-identified enemies of the civil rights movement taking notes about that movement. The FBI wanted people like Martin Luther King dead, and it definitively aided in the killing of other activists, such as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, who the bureau helped the Chicago Police Department assassinate in 1969. That fact renders the bureau’s files about people like Hampton and King not an impartial and reliable accounting, but instead the paper trail of what murderers (or aspirational murderers) thought, feverishly imagined, and manufactured about their victims. As a consequence, those files have to always be treated with skepticism so severe as to make them unable to stand on their own without additional corroboration. To do otherwise — to examine them and assume what they say is true, as Garrow does — is unequivocally reckless and does extreme violence to the standard processes by which historians evaluate the reliability of evidence and use it to understand history.
It gets worse. What Garrow primarily relies upon to accuse King of abetting rape are not run-of-the-mill FBI surveillance files, created by an agent or agents based upon field observation and submitted to the bureau. Instead, what he leans fully upon to make the accusation is a brief and unattributed handwritten annotation, made in the margins of a typewritten summary of the transcript of an audio surveillance tape — a tape Garrow has never heard. In other words, the degrees of separation between Garrow and any possible way of knowing whether King did the things Garrow’s accusing him of are extensive and extraordinary. FBI agents hostile to King wiretapped his hotel room and recorded events that supposedly occurred there. Then, other FBI agents hostile to King listened to that tape and transcribed it. Then, other FBI agents hostile to King filed a summary of the transcript alleging that a King affiliate had committed rape, and even that summary made no mention of King’s conduct in the room. After the fact, someone else (Garrow does not know who), wrote in the margins that “King looked on, laughed and offered advice.”
Finally, Garrow looked at this file and determined it all must be true, even though he has no corroborating evidence to that one unattributed scrawl in the margins. (A brief note: Garrow is remarkably evasive about his lack of corroborating evidence for all of this. He writes that the Department of Justice in 1977 reviewed the many tapes the FBI had on King, as well as the transcripts of those tapes, and deemed them to be “genuine and accurate.” This is fundamentally different than the DOJ having confirmed the veracity of the allegation Garrow is making about King abetting rape. At least according to Garrow’s own reporting, the DOJ did not review the summary upon which he is singularly reliant for purposes of the rape abetment accusation, making his entire aside about the DOJ little more than a dodge.)
Garrow’s justification for treating an unknown author’s one-sentence scrawl as gospel is this: “Throughout the 1960s, when no precedent for the public release of FBI documents existed or was even anticipated, [Asst. FBI Director William C.] Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day. Similarly, they would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript, both of which remain under court seal and one day will confirm or disprove the FBI’s summary allegation.”
Anyone who has worked with government surveillance files knows this is absurd. I myself have extensive experience working with such material: with FBI files, and even more so, with those of the Chicago police’s infamous “Red Squad” — a local counterpart and frequent partner of the FBI, which like the bureau spent countless resources and manhours trailing, surveilling, infiltrating, destabilizing, and reporting on the actions and motives (real and imagined) of all sorts of leftist organizers and organizations.
Contrary to what Garrow says, the authors of surveillance files on freedom movement activists offered bad information, conjectured and lied all the time in internal correspondence. The mission of surveillance, again and to restate the obvious, was never impartial. It was to destroy and discredit. At the most fundamental level, then, these surveillance files were all about building cases against their subjects — not necessarily legal cases—but sets of internal assessments about particular individuals or organizations that could then serve as justification to take action against those individuals and organizations. Red Squad officers who authored reports on Chicago’s Black Panthers, for example, “inaccurately embellished” their internal reports as a matter of routine, such as falsely reporting in internal files that Fred Hampton was smuggling guns — thereby enhancing the alarm inside the CPD and Chicago’s political class about Hampton and the Panthers. Such embellished surveillance reports could then be used to help manufacture greater repression of target subjects, such as helping grease the skids to obtain search warrants, encourage the use and escalation of violence, and otherwise make the case to superiors in law enforcement and politics that further action was necessary. And they could also be used as a post-hoc justification for why someone like Hampton was a threat in need of elimination.
Misinformation could also be good for people’s careers. High-ranking officials in organizations like the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover most famously) and the Red Squad were vocal about wanting information that they could use to undermine movement organizing, and routinely pressed subordinates for such information. In the arithmetic of such men, what was accurate about someone like King wasn’t necessarily what mattered. What mattered was what was useful as a bludgeon to thwart him. Thus, for subordinates inside these institutions of surveillance, providing information — even if “embellished” or completely fabricated — was giving the bosses what they wanted and establishing a means of getting and staying in their good graces. Up and down the line of the surveillance apparatus, lies and misinformation were commonplace not only in terms of what the FBI and other surveillance operations fed the public but also in what they circulated among themselves.
Garrow should know this. He should know the supposed evidence he is using to accuse King of abetting rape is not in and of itself reliable. That he either does not know it to be unreliable, or knows it to be unreliable and simply doesn’t care, is not only disappointing but a violation of the standard practices of his (and my) profession. Even more shameful is the fact that he has done violence to those professional norms in service of helping a conservative magazine exploit the energy of the #MeToo movement to sell copies. (Standpoint explicitly called it a #MeToo story in the run-up to publication, even though, as black feminist historian Barbara Ransby succinctly put it, “It is not a woman’s voice we are being asked to believe here but the F.B.I.’s.”)
Not until 2027, as part of a larger evidentiary release, is the audiotape of what allegedly transpired in that D.C. hotel room scheduled to be unsealed. When that time comes, it will be up to responsible researchers to analyze what the tape reveals, and then for us all to proceed from there. Unfortunately, thanks to Garrow and until that time, we are left sitting with this grenade of an allegation that is not only unverified but unverifiable.
Simon Balto is an assistant professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. His first book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, was recently published by the University of North Carolina Press.
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