In 1970, only two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his widow Coretta Scott King received the horrific news that haters had shot into her husband’s crypt in Atlanta, using it for target practice. Though grieved by the news, she conceded it was an omen that even in his grave, the assassination of Dr. King would continue by fabrications and vile assaults on her husband’s character.
To her, the words “you can kill the dreamer, but not the dream” were not just a catchy mantra. She used them to brace for the backlash she feared would come.
The recent trove of salacious and ill-reported old rumors being bandied about by Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow falls seamlessly into that anticipated outcome. Mrs. King, who died in 2006, had often shared with me her distrust of Garrow because of his close ties to the FBI, an agency that has historically schemed to nullify Black leaders. According to former FBI agent Donald Wilson, agents cheered in the Atlanta bureau upon news of his death.
The controversial information was obtained from FBI bugging of hotel visits as Dr. King traveled across the country. The newest scandalous claims, according to an FBI agent, place Dr. King in a hotel room when a minister friend of his, now deceased, raped a woman, and King “looked on, laughed and offered advice” and that he also fathered a child with a mistress.
The information Garrow reportedly uncovered was recently reported in Standpoint, a conservative British magazine, along with an article labeling King a “sexual predator” and “the Harvey Weinstein of the civil rights movement.”
As the news reverberated in London, Keith Magee, a senior scholar at the University College London (UCL), expressed his outrage.
“This is part of the right wing’s offensive to dismantle and destroy everything revered by people of color,” Magee said. “As President Trump visited London, certain people couldn’t bear to see a Black man being more respected than Trump, so there was a move to destroy Dr. King’s image.”
Meanwhile several right-wing news outlets are blowing up the fabricated scandal, in one instance calling for the dismantling of Dr. King’s statue on the mall in the nation’s capital.
Clayborne Carson, who oversees the Dr. King records headquartered at Stanford University, said he has seen the same information Garrow has but reached a different conclusion.
“None of this is new,” Carson said. “Garrow is talking about a recently added summary of a transcript of a 1964 recording from the Willard Hotel that others, including Mrs. King, have said they did not hear Martin’s voice on in. The added summary was four layers removed from the actual recording. This supposedly new information comes from an anonymous source in a single paragraph in an FBI report. You have to ask how could anyone conclude King looked at a rape from an audio recording in a room where he was not present.”
In my Coretta King memoir, “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” she talked about this material mailed to her home on Nov. 2, 1964, that her sources later confirmed were dispatched by the FBI: “I set up our reel-to-reel recorder and listened. I have read scores of reports talking about the scurrilous activities of my husband but once again, there was nothing at all incriminating on the tape. It was a social event with people laughing and telling dirty jokes. But I did not hear Martin’s voice on it, and there was nothing about sex or anything else resembling the lies J. Edgar and the FBI were spreading.”
Although she and other aides dismissed the tape, she could not dismiss the poorly typed letter in the package, suggesting the information to be released to the press was so damaging King should commit suicide. It read: “King we’ve found you out… You are done for there is only one way out.. You have thirty-four days before you are exposed and publicly defamed.”
What should be made clear is the letter was sent 34 days before Martin was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize but was not opened until the couple returned from the Nobel ceremonies in Norway. Mrs. King said that Hoover hated Dr. King and was outraged that King was receiving the honor he felt he deserved.
“Our source told us Hoover had ordered the doctored tape to be sent to me in the hopes I would divorce Martin, which would bring him down,” she said. “Despite all the rumors, Martin and I did not take the bait.”
Believing the FBI is a friend of Black people would require amnesia as the agency has historically worked to nullify and destroy Black leaders, author Anthony Summers said in his Hoover biography, “Official and Confidential.”
The long list includes orchestrating the jailing and deportation of the fiery Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey, bugging and blackballing the great singer Paul Robeson, the ruthless assault on the Black Panthers and the well-documented COINTELPRO, the FBI program waged in the 1960’s to prevent the rise of a Black “Messiah,” generally thought to be Dr. King.
Over the years, Mrs. King has defended her husband’s reputation, attesting he was faithful to his marriage. Others, however, such as Carson, a historian, do not put King in a category of perfection.
“There are no perfect men, but it is still wrong to use undocumented, tainted evidence to smear a man when history shows that many men with documented sordid private lives, still remain heroes,” Carson said.
While the scandal is brewing, the words of Mrs. King are worth remembering: They may kill the dreamer, but Dr. King’s dream of diversity and justice will outlive his enemies.
Reynolds is an author and former editorial writer and columnist for USA Today.