55 years ago, the FBI tried to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr with a 'suicide' letter. This week, newly discovered documents finally explain the sordid origin of the plan.

Wikimedia CommonsDr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Back in 1975, historians discovered a strange letter sent by the FBI to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, in which the agency threatened to spread gossip about King’s sex life in the media “There is but one way out for you,” the letter said, which King took as a suggestion of suicide.
  • Although it had been widely known that King was unfaithful to his wife, it was a mystery why the FBI thought the letter – which called King a “colossal fraud” and “an evil, abnormal beast” – would work, or was even a good idea.
  • Now, a report sourced from extensive US government records shows that the FBI went to extreme lengths, over an extended period of time, to document King’s sex life, often on a night-by-night basis.
  • FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was personally obsessed with bringing down King, originally because he thought King sympathized with the communists. But when he found out that King had had affairs with as many as 40 women, he gave his agents permission to send King a tape-recording of an orgy in King’s Washington DC hotel.
  • The report is by Pulitzer-winning King biographer David J. Garrow, who located the never-before-seen FBI memos deep inside a huge National Archives data trove.
  • INSIDER has reproduced the letter here in full. Some readers may find the details in this story upsetting.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

An explosive report on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sourced from obscure US government records, potentially solves a 55-year-old mystery: Why did the FBI send a letter telling King “there is but one way out for you,” which King assumed meant he should kill himself, sometime around 1964?

The answer, according to Pulitzer-winning biographer of King, David J. Garrow, is that the FBI had spent years collecting evidence of King’s sexual behaviour, and agents believed that what they had gathered was enough to shame him into leaving the national stage.

What has now come to be known as the “suicide letter” first surfaced in 1975. Yale historian Beverly Gage published a copy of it in The New York Times in 2014. In isolation, the letter is deeply strange: Moralistic, mean, full of personal insults and veiled threats. Without further context, the letter reads as if it were written by an irrational person. It doesn’t explicitly suggest King kill himself. But the activist interpreted it that way, Garrow believes.

Garrow’s newly unearthed material helps explain why the FBI adopted such an extreme tactic. The material reveals that the FBI went to extreme lengths, over several years, to document King’s sex life, often on a night-by-night basis. The documents paint a granular picture of King’s infidelity, which was seized upon by an FBI eager to incriminate the central figure of the US civil rights movement. They also show the FBI to be prudish and judgmental – FBI agents are shocked by oral sex and homosexuality, the documents state.

The report – due for publication in the British magazine Standpoint on Thursday – has been seen in advance by INSIDER. Garrow says US media outlets were offered his story but ultimately turned it down. To find the documents, Garrow says he spent months sifting through a recent FBI data dump of 50,000 unorganized web links in the US National Archives.

The recordings – which remain under seal – were made via FBI bugs hidden in King’s hotel rooms. As Business Insider reported on Tuesday, Garrow said the FBI had put bugs in two lamps in King’s room at the Willard Hotel.

The audio tapes are sealed until 2027. But the memos are available now.

The tapes were made as part of an FBI surveillance project that began in 1955 and continued until King was killed, according to Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. One FBI memo describes how the FBI believed King was “highly susceptible to coercion and possible blackmail,” which it said could come from communists.

According to Garrow, one memo notes that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover signed off on the plan to blackmail King. Hoover was personally obsessed with bringing down King.

According to Garrow, Assistant FBI Director William Sullivan then ordered staff to duplicate audio of King’s sexual activities taken from bugged rooms at the Willard Hotel and Los Angeles Hyatt and send them to King, in 1964. The material for this blackmail was information on “intimate relationships with at least three women, one in Atlanta, one in Mt Vernon, New York, and one in Washington, DC.” Another memo refers to a recording where King “looked on and laughed” as a pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist Church allegedly raped a woman in the Willard Hotel room. The pastor died in 1991.

There is no way to verify the FBI’s information. It is not clear whether the agents involved were transcribing the true reality of King’s private life, or creating idle gossip as part of their campaign against him.

Alongside the tapes was the now-infamous, anonymous letter urging King to avoid embarrassment, with the words, “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. … There is but one way out for you.” It was delivered inside a manila envelope.

Exterior view of the Willard hotel in Washington,DC on May 15, 2009.GettyThe Willard hotel in Washington, DC, where the FBI spied on King.

The letter runs to more than 500 words, and claims to be from an African-American who supported the civil rights movement. In fact, it was written by the FBI.

It accuses King of “immoral conduct lower than that of a beast,” and calls him “a giant liability to all of us Negroes.”

It encourages King to listen to an enclosed tape. The writer tells King, “it is all there on the record, your sexual orgies. Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal. You are on the record. You have been on the record – all your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies extending far into the past. This one is but a tiny sample …”

It concludes: “You have just 34 days in which to do… There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

INSIDER has published the full transcript of the letter at the bottom of this article.

J. Edgar HooverMarion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia CommonsEx-FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, who approved the plan to blackmail King with tapes, Garrow says.

King, Garrow said, immediately suspected the FBI. The FBI overheard him on a later wiretapped phone line telling an aide the bureau was “out to get me, harass me, break my spirit,” according to Garrow, who quotes from a memo about an April 1975 interview with FBI agent Lish Whitson.

King was assassinated in April 1968. The King Center – the official archive which aims to continue King’s legacy – declined to comment on Garrow’s report.

“Lend your morally psychotic ear to this…” Full transcript of FBI letter to Martin Luther King

This is the letter the memo says King received, reproduced in full from a photograph Garrow included in his Standpoint article.

The letter is anonymous, but the author claims to be an African-American who supports the civil rights movement. The author names Roy Wilkins as a preferable leader to MLK, whom the letter says is too morally debased for a position of leadership

It includes some unusual capitalisations and punctuation, which INSIDER has not corrected.

King,

In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behaviour I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a giant liability to all of us Negroes. 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 any where near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil vicious one at that. You could not believe in God and act as you do. Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.

King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age, have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like Wilkins a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done. Your “honorary” degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat you are done.

No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself. Lend your morally psychotic ear to the enclosure. You will find yourself and in all your dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk exposed on the record for all time. I repeat – no person can argue successfully against facts. You are finished.

You will find on the record for all time your filthy, dirty, evil companions, male and females giving expression with you to your hideous abnormalities. And some of them to pretend to be minister of the gospel. Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness. It is all there on the record, your sexual orgies.

Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal. You are on the record. You have been on the record – all your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies extending far into the past. This one is but a tiny sample You will understand this. Yes, from your various evil playmates on the east coast to Dolores Evans and others on the west coast and outside the country you are on the record. King you are done.

The American public, the church organisations that have been helping – Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practice significance. 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.

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