What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.

Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar presents an understandably fictionalized portrait of the notorious FBI director. The real history, though, is more interesting

j edgar wiretap mlk meroney 615.jpg
Warner Bros

J. Edgar is the biographical drama one would expect Hollywood to make.

It trots out all the familiar lore and long-standing gossip about the man who ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 until he died in 1972: He was fixated with anti-communism, maintained confidential files on prominent Americans, and perhaps was a closet homosexual.

But the film misses the opportunity to tell a story that most of America hasn't heard—probably because it's easier to digest the accepted wisdom that J. Edgar Hoover is "diabolical" (as producer Brian Grazer recently called him) than tarnish the mythology of 1960s-era heroes, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.

If there is anything surprising about the film it's how even-handed the picture is, especially given the script by Dustin Lance Black, which reads like an indictment of Hoover. Credit for the restraint goes to director Clint Eastwood. For example, in a scene where Hoover tries on his mother's dress, moviegoers are left wondering whether the character does this because he's a latent cross-dresser or merely longs to be close to her.

When it comes to the real J. Edgar Hoover, separating fact from conjecture is challenging because he had so many enemies. Post-Cold War Soviet Union archives reveal that the KGB employed a decades-long systematic campaign of character assassination and disinformation against him. One wonders how much of that may have been inadvertently mainlined into the more sordid accounts of Hoover "history," perhaps even in this picture. Some dramatic license is permitted for films "based on a true story," but there's one important plot line of the picture that's flat-out fictional and not open to guesswork: Hoover's tumultuous relationship with King.

Moviegoers who see J. Edgar will leave the theater with the impression that Hoover drove the surveillance of the young civil rights leader - ordering agents to bug his hotel room and wiretap his telephone calls - because he considered the minister a threat to national security. According to the movie, Hoover persuades his reluctant boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to sign off on such procedures. But records from Freedom of Information Act disclosures and the pioneering research of civil rights historian David J. Garrow tell a far different, and more insightful, story.

In the summer of 1963, Hoover wasn't the only one preoccupied with King. So was the Kennedy White House. That was because one of King's closest advisers, Stanley David Levison, and another man who ran one of King's offices, Jack O'Dell, were secret Communist Party operatives. For at least a year, the president and his attorney general brother had been receiving classified data, transcripts of wiretapped telephone calls (which they sanctioned), and intelligence reports confirming the men's affiliation with the Soviet-controlled Party. This information also chronicled the work they were then doing for King.

President Kennedy didn't worry about an espionage leak, or that the men would necessarily insert propaganda into King's speeches—although some King advisers apparently did see to it that King's plans to criticize communism ("that it was an alien philosophy contrary to us," is how King said he intended to describe it) were scrapped. Rather, the president feared the political fall-out that would come if it were revealed that the nation's foremost civil rights leader had advisers with ties to the Soviet Union. In May, President Kennedy told his brother he didn't want the minister anywhere near him. "King is so hot that it's like Marx coming to the White House," he says on a White House tape.

But by June, the president had grown weary of the risks King was causing him and decided to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with the minister in Washington. In the Rose Garden, he exhorted King that Levison, was, as Kennedy described him, a "Kremlin agent." Get rid of him, demanded the president.

King looked the Kennedy in the eye and promised he would. But King merely pretended to break off contact with Levison while actually continuing to confer with him through intermediaries. The president, however, was aware of King's back-channel communication arrangement with Levison—because his brother had already authorized wiretaps and bugs on Levison himself. Distressed, the Kennedy wondered what else King was hiding.

Later that summer, because of White House-authorized surveillance on at least one King associate, the Kennedys learned the minister was having extra-marital affairs. When tape recordings of King's "bedroom activities" surfaced, J. Edgar Hoover apparently listened. Leonardo DiCaprio deftly plays the curious old man hearing these tapes. (What Eastwood finessed is an improvement from Black's screenplay that reads, "Hoover is listening, his forehead is misty, he may even be masturbating.") In fact, the recordings revolted Hoover.

J. Edgar leads us to believe that all of this voyeurism came at the instigation of Hoover. But the date of October 10, 1963, offers a different narrative: that was when Attorney General Robert Kennedy, angered by King's recalcitrance to comply with the president's demand to oust Levison, ordered Hoover to have bureau agents wiretap King's telephones, including the one in the preacher's Atlanta home.

"I asked the FBI to make an intensive investigation of Martin Luther King," Robert Kennedy later privately acknowledged to journalist Anthony Lewis, "to see who his companions were and, also, to see what other activities he was involved in. This is also the reason that President Kennedy and I and the Department of Justice were so reserved about him, which I'm sure he felt. We never wanted to get close to him just because of these contacts and connections that he had, which we felt were damaging to the civil rights movement and because we were so intimately involved in the struggle for civil rights, it also damaged us. It damaged what we were trying to do."

Of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy later that fall cast a pall over the future of civil rights until Lyndon Johnson began pushing it again the following year. Nevertheless, the new president—now recipient of the results from the bugs and wiretaps that were capturing Martin Luther King's every move—was watchful of the minister, though apparently for additional reasons. Johnson seemed to consume the King surveillance with gusto, especially the personal stuff. "He listened to the tapes that even had the noises of the bedsprings," Time correspondent Hugh Sidey reported in 1975. Johnson would say, "Goddammit, if you could only hear what that hypocritical preacher does sexually."

J. Edgar also leaves one to conclude that Hoover's disapproval of King was all-encompassing. At one point in the picture, the supposedly repressed Hoover comes unhinged, fulminating against King, and - in a risible fictionalization - he even crafts a poison-pen letter to the minister pretending that he's black. "You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all us Negroes," dictates the movie's Hoover. "White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal."

The filmmakers, of course, want viewers to recognize that Hoover is ironically describing himself. The truth is, Hoover never sent such a letter to King. Most of Hoover's animus toward the civil rights leader can be traced to a statement King made to the press that implied that FBI agents in Southern states were too "friendly" with segregationists and local police. "Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country," Hoover replied to reporters in November 1964.

Seeking to clarify his remarks to the FBI director, King met with Hoover in Washington a few weeks later. "I want to assure you that I have been seriously misquoted in the matter of slurs against the FBI," King told him.

In the meeting, Hoover defended his agents, saying that they were only interacting with Southern policemen because they needed information that could be used to build legal cases to combat federal civil rights violations. "I would like to give you some advice, Dr. King," Hoover told him. "One of the greatest things you could accomplish for your people would be to encourage them to register and vote. Registrars in the South now have to be much more careful than in the past, and there are fewer attempts to prevent Negroes from registering. We're monitoring registration and voting procedures very carefully." This from the "monstrous" FBI director, as J. Edgar's screenwriter recently called Hoover.

Despite the rift between Hoover and King, Hoover remained a real FBI man—he was no Joe McCarthy, whom the movie character Hoover insults as an "opportunist." Still, most people who see J. Edgar would never know that when segregationist governors such as Ross Barnett (Mississippi) and George Wallace (Alabama) campaigned against civil rights legislation by smearing Martin Luther King for supposedly being part of a "communist training school" in Tennessee and claiming that King "belonged to more communist organizations than any man in the U.S," it was Hoover's bureau that produced information refuting such lies.

As author Taylor Branch reveals in his history of the civil rights movement, during the "freedom summer" of 1964, Hoover received information indicating that it was likely white supremacists would kill Martin Luther King at any moment. Hoover authorized FBI agents to accompany the unaware King on a flight through the South to secure his protection—that's just what an FBI man would do. Because most people now seem to learn history from the movies, it's unfortunate that a rather telling scene like that wasn't in this script.