In a fascinating piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine, Yale professor Beverly Gage uncovers the uncensored version of a letter sent by the FBI’s William Sullivan to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. In an attempt to discredit the civil-rights leader and drive him from power—and perhaps even to suicide—Sullivan, one of Director J. Edgar Hoover’s deputies, warned King in graphic terms that his extramarital affairs were public knowledge.
The letter—in which King is described as an “evil, abnormal beast” who cavorts with “filthy dirty evil companions”—is a reminder of an era when the FBI went to extreme lengths to protect what it considered to be the nation’s best interests. When the white civil-rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965 by a group of Klansmen that included an FBI informant, Hoover’s bureau spread false rumors that Liuzzo was a heroin addict who had traveled to the South to have sex with black men. Hoover’s name, incidentally, still adorns the FBI building in Washington today.
But Gage’s story on the letter, and its analysis of the FBI’s smear campaign against King, also reopens a debate about how much a public leader’s personal and sexual conduct should matter, and what the media’s role in reporting it should be:
Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often—though not always—a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.
Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious.
Gage notes that America was “lucky” the press didn’t run with the story of King’s infidelity, since his contributions to justice in this country outweigh any personal moral failings.