ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Opinion: Our decision on a volatile MLK topic

The second time I talked to David Garrow, we spoke for more than an hour.

This was back in December. Garrow is among the nation’s leading historians on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the top authorities on America’s civil rights movement.

Garrow had approached Atlanta Journal-Constitution editors with discoveries about King gleaned from newly released government documents.

Among more than 19,00 declassified files related to the JFK assassination, Garrow had unearthed FBI investigative summaries and a few transcripts of audio recordings of the government’s surveillance of King. What Garrow found was explosive. There was a documented rape King might have witnessed, he said. Mistresses, prostitutes, orgies and a love child were referenced. King speaking crudely, objectifying women.

Garrow concluded that the material was such that it should demand a rethinking of King the historical figure. While his legacy of accomplishment in pursuit of full citizenship for African Americans is cemented and his skill as an organizer, orator and tactician is unassailable, King’s personal conduct should be subject to review, Garrow argued.

It made sense for Garrow to offer his discoveries to the AJC. It made sense for the newspaper in King’s hometown to listen.

So the goal of our hour-long conversation was to establish whether it made sense for the AJC to publish the 7,300-word essay Garrow had drafted.

So this was an interview to understand Garrow’s work so it could inform our decision.

Here is how it went.

Garrow, during a phone conversation, walked me through each of the headline-grabbing allegations.

Our questions for him focused mainly on how Garrow had discovered the documents, what makes him confident they’re accurate and, if verified to the AJC’s standard, how the information might affect the narrative of King the person and King the historical figure?

So Garrow explained how the FBI compiled this information. Yes, these were summaries representing the content of audiotapes generated from listening devices the FBI placed in King’s hotel rooms over a two-year period.

No, the audiotapes were not available. In 1977, the tapes had been placed under seal for 50 years by a judge. That meant there was no way to compare the tapes with the summaries.

Then we talked about the source. It’s the FBI. For anyone who understands the era, you’re aware of the FBI’s conduct during that time. It raises legitimate questions about the accuracy, thoroughness and fairness of what Garrow found.

In his writings, Garrow has been consistently clear about the FBI’s disdain for King and the efforts the agency exerted to discredit him. It was documented long ago that the FBI’s surveillance had produced a recording of King with women that had been delivered to him, accompanied with a message that encouraged King to commit suicide or face exposure.

So could any of this have been doctored?

The summaries of the tapes, Garrow explained, was internal work product from the recordings. Agents in that era of the FBI who compiled them never had any reason to think they would go public, he surmised. Besides, the more damning documentation are the recordings, which are purportedly of King and beyond dispute. So Garrow thinks it’s highly likely that the documents reflect what is on the tapes. So the question is could the tapes be phony, which Garrow thinks is highly unlikely.

So why should we consider publishing this?

Well, King is the most influential Georgian ever. He defines a movement that propelled the forward momentum our country has enjoyed since the full enfranchisement of African Americans. King embodies the ideal of equality that defines America, and he gave inspiring voice to it.

More than 50 years after his death, it’s difficult to view him as flesh and bone. He’s a holiday.

We often forget that King never saw his 40th birthday. We forget that he was a prodigy to some degree, groomed from a young age to assume the position history provided to the young preacher who dared to take a stand against injustice. Put in the proper context, perhaps these documents might shed unprecedented light on King’s personal struggles and how he dealt with the stress of the moment.

But there is something else to consider. What Garrow was presenting isn’t just about King’s conduct.

It potentially provides insight about our government and the tactics it employed to discredit the American civil rights movement. As journalists, our primary duty is the provide a check on the awesome power of government. The more we understand about how the FBI handled King, the better we understand how the bedrock institutions of our government can be turned on its citizens when left in the hands of those who are willing to disregard the law and our founding traditions.

Garrow’s findings had given us plenty to consider.

My third conversation with him, days later, was far shorter.

I thanked him on behalf of our editor Kevin Riley and the leadership team at the AJC.

Then we declined to publish his essay.

Here’s why.

First, there was the lack of source material — the audiotapes — that we could access for its contents. Therefore, we could never verify the summaries Garrow had discovered. Nor could we produce it independently.

Secondly, our jobs as journalist is to, as the saying goes, write the first draft of history. It is up to historians like Garrow to refine it, contextualize it, argue about it and examine it through the shifting lenses of contemporary culture.

AJC editors were aware that someone would eventually publish Garrow’s work. When that happened, we understood we had a duty to report the findings and to distill it for an Atlanta audience, who hold collective ownership of King in ways others do not.

He was once our neighbor. And we won’t forget that in 2027.

Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. is in charge of reporting teams that cover local government, state government, schools and public safety. Email him at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com.

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