King & the Communists

The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis.
by David J. Garrow.
Norton. 320 pp. $15.95.

For some time it has been common knowledge that the FBI engaged in a relentless investigation of Martin Luther King, Jr. during most of his brief public career. King was tailed as he traveled around the country; his telephone conversations were wiretapped; his hotel rooms were bugged. Efforts were made to discredit or destroy him by planting news stories about his supposed political and moral turpitude, by informing other civil-rights leaders and political figures about his personal life, and by using blackmail to induce him to leave the political scene or kill himself. In this book David J. Garrow, a historian at the University of North Carolina, sets out to review the Bureau’s campaign against King, to examine what J. Edgar Hoover and his men came up with, and to consider the reasons for this FBI obsession.

It should be noted at the outset that Garrow produces no evidence to link the Bureau to the 1968 assassination of King in Memphis. Indeed he emphatically repudiates the thesis of FBI complicity in the crime. It should also be noted that Garrow’s primary sources for this study are, ironically, FBI files, secured under the Freedom of Information Act. Were it not for the FBI’s own record of its activities, this history of a key period in the civil-rights movement could not have been written. Garrow (who makes no secret of his distaste for the FBI’s methods) is thus in the curious position of having produced a book whose most enlightening elements are the fruits of illegal conduct on the part of the U.S. government.

Be all that as it may, this is a superbly controlled and altogether fascinating scholarly enterprise. Garrow rejects the widely received wisdom that King was pursued by the FBI simply because Hoover and his organization consistently engaged in vicious combat against any public figure who had the audacity to criticize them. The FBI, it appears, was animated at least initially by more substantive concerns. Garrow identifies three distinct phases in the Bureau’s investigation of King. The first involved links between King and American Communists: the Bureau sought to determine whether and to what degree Communists had infiltrated the civil-rights movement generally, and were exercising influence over King specifically. The second focused on King’s personal and sexual life. In the third phase, the FBI searched out King’s involvement in the anti-war campaign of the 60’s.

The story Garrow relates is a sad one. The nation’s leading law-enforcement agency is seen as a secret army controlled by men who were prepared for the flimsiest of reasons to countenance inexcusable violations of civil liberties. In the second “phase” of its investigation the FBI appears in a particularly grotesque light. During this interlude, a high-ranking Bureau official sent King a tape-recording of what would seem to have been an exceptionally active sexual encounter (involving King and a woman, or various women, other than his wife), along with a crude, FBI-drafted “anonymous” letter advising him to commit suicide: “You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”



It might be tempting, on the basis of evidence such as this, to write off the whole episode of the FBI and Martin Luther King as a byproduct of the racism and irrational fear of social change that pervaded a broken-down police agency in a decadent period of its history. Garrow wisely resists this temptation. He explains that the FBI’s initial concern over King and the Communists was shared by President Kennedy, his brother Robert, the Attorney General, and high-ranking Justice Department officials. The author does not deem this concern irrational. He patiently examines the issues, supplementing information gleaned from Bureau files with revealing evidence from personal interviews.

A politically inexperienced preacher from the deep South, King had been suddenly thrust into the national spotlight during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. He found himself on unfamiliar, often hostile, turf. As Garrow tells it, King was in need of assistance. As the director of a growing movement, he required help in handling complex financial matters, in evaluating the labor and other liberal leaders who were offering their advice and aid, and in preparing precise written statements on legal and programmatic issues. Some who came to King’s side were men of impeccable political credentials, their intentions beyond reproach—Bayard Rustin is an obvious example. Others had been, or still were, committed Communists, like Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell.



Levison, who provoked the greatest alarm among those concerned with King’s ties to American Communists, is an interesting and important character in the story. Garrow is able to shed considerable light on this New York attorney who wrote parts of King’s first book after negotiating a publishing contract for him, prepared his income-tax returns for 1957, and gradually became Martin Luther King’s seemingly indispensable right-hand man.

According to Bureau informants well placed in the Communist party, in particular the brothers Morris and Jack Childs (Morris was, briefly, editor of the Daily Worker), Levison had been active in the highest echelons of the party. He was evidently involved in CP financial activities—as a key money manager and a secret donor—from just after World War II until some time in 1955, most intensely during the three years 1952-55. Levison’s relationship with King commenced in 1956; the Childs brothers—code-named “Solo” by the FBI—did not know why Levison ceased at this time to be active in CP financial affairs. Information from Jack Childs suggests that the attorney remained sympathetic to the party until 1963, and then grew “disenchanted.” (Levison died two years ago; he was eulogized at a memorial meeting by Andrew Young.)

The FBI was not particularly interested in Levison until the closeness between the attorney and King became apparent. As for Jack O’Dell, who met King in 1959 and soon became an important figure in King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he had an essentially public record as a CP activist dating back to the late 1940’s.

President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, among others, warned King that his ties with these men were endangering the credibility of the civil-rights movement as a whole. King was reluctant to terminate his relationship with Levison and even wavered over O’Dell. The Bureau soon discovered that, despite King’s claims to the contrary, he continued to remain in close contact with Levison.

There is no evidence that Levison and O’Dell were acting as agents of the Communist party in their involvement with King, the SCLC, and the civil-rights struggle. Still, their political histories suggest a long-standing commitment to a larger—and altogether discredited—cause. Men who were involved with American Communism, in all its Stalinist ugliness, as late as Levison and O’Dell were, and who never repudiated that involvement, made for dubious political allies. Whether King was simply naive, or motivated by a sense of personal loyalty to these men, remains an open question.



Another question, perhaps related to the matter of Levison and O’Dell, concerns what Garrow refers to as King’s “journey from reformer to revolutionary.” In the “third phase” of the FBI investigation it was revealed that King had undergone a seeming ideological metamorphosis. The apostle of nonviolent integration was telling friends and staff—needless to say, the FBI had a paid informant in the SCLC—that he considered himself a Marxist, that American society required a radical redistribution of economic and political power, and that “the black revolution . . . is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism.” Garrow suggests that some of these attitudes went all the way back to King’s years in divinity school, but there can be no doubt that it was during his brief span in the public arena, and particularly as he drew close to the antiwar movement, that King underwent a radical political transformation. The role of Levison and other Communists in this process can only be guessed at. It is well to bear in mind, though, that King remained to the end a strong-willed and profoundly thoughtful man—it would be simplistic to view him as a mere “tool” of individuals or political forces with their own agendas.

King’s violent and untimely death leaves unanswered the question of what path he would have followed in the years after 1968. But the message of this book is that the FBI’s apprehensions on that score were not misdirected or misconceived, at least from its own point of view. As the historians Richard Hofstadter and Frank J. Donner have pointed out, the FBI saw itself in this period as the guardian of the established social and political order, the defender of American values against adversary challenges. Despite the post-assassination myth of King as a reformer and a gradualist, Garrow notes that “in truth, Martin Luther King was much more a radical threat than a reassuring reformer.” Ironically enough the FBI saw this truth more readily than did many others.

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