Some of what the agents recorded, and FBI headquarters transcribed, detailed how the abuse of women knew few bounds. Just as John F. Kennedy looked on while coercing a young White House intern to perform a sex act on a presidential buddy, FBI intelligence chief William Sullivan alleged that King looked on as a fellow pastor forcefully violated an unwilling woman. Since the tape recording of that episode, which FBI agents did nothing to stop, still exists under a time-limited court seal in a National Archives vault, come 2027 the accuracy of Sullivan’s allegation can be established.
One year ago, when the National Archives quietly put up on its web page over 54,000 links to U.S. intelligence community documents from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, I knew that the huge trove might well contain new material about important human FBI informants like James Harrison and famed Memphis photographer Ernest Withers. But the trove also contained dozens and dozens of new summary details and quotations from the Bureau’s recordings of King, the full transcripts of which remain sealed until 2027 pursuant to the court order.
Just as in 1980-81, when a scholar discovers the existence of historically significant new information, in this case documents which anyone with an internet connection can see and read, it would be historical malpractice to pretend that such documents are not in public view. No matter how unpalatable some of their content, for any serious scholar professionalism must trump politics.
The new documents indict J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at least as much as they indict Dr. King. In addition to the FBI’s full complicity in the alleged forcible rape of a black woman, the new materials also implicate Hoover himself in the mailing of a notorious suicide letter and tape to King. For over 40 years the standard account had William Sullivan alone authorizing that vile act, but the new information credibly details how Hoover and his two top deputies were likewise complicit. Enriching and enlarging the historical record is a scholar’s uppermost responsibility, irrespective of whoever finds such new information unwelcome.
David J. Garrow’s books include “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.” (1981), the Pulitzer Prize-winning King biography “Bearing the Cross” (1986), and “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama” (2017).