The release of a newly discovered, uncensored 1964 letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., urging him, in graphic language, to kill himself, has experts on contemporary race relations pointing to a glass both half empty and half full.
A heavily redacted version of the missive, sent to Dr. King just days before he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and threatening to expose King’s extra-marital affairs, is well-known to historians. But the full extent of the racist and abusive language had not been available until now. Yale historian Beverly Gage discovered the note in the National Archives while researching a book on J. Edgar Hoover. The New York Times published it on Wednesday.
“This is a good moment to see just how much things have changed since the 1960s,” says historian Jerald Podair, who teaches courses on race relations at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. The note was authorized by then-director J. Edgar Hoover and clearly shows the animosity and abusive tactics the agency was willing to authorize to not just discredit but destroy the civil rights leader.
The so-called “suicide letter” reads in part:
Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. You will find yourself in all your dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk exposed on the record for all time …. You will find on the record for all time your filthy, dirty, evil companions, male and females giving expression with you to your hidious [sic] abnormalities. It is all there on the record, your sexual orgies. Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal. You are on the record.”
Hoover dug up evidence of King’s adulteries through extensive wiretaps on King’s home and hotels. A cassette of the recordings of such wiretaps was enclosed in the letter when it was sent to the King home in 1964.
“And so, with the FBI involved in the Ferguson case and all these other details about federal agencies collecting personal data on Americans, this is also a cautionary tale about what can go wrong,” says Professor Podair.
He points out that the current FBI director, James Comey, keeps a copy of the FBI's wiretap request against King on his desk as a personal reminder of mistakes that have been made.
The degrading and insulting language in the letter also shows that, while some elements of the race dialogue in the US have softened, in fundamentally important ways, they have not changed, says Neal Lester, a professor of English who also teaches courses on race relations at Arizona State University. The note refers to King as a “beast,” he says.
Such animalizing of the African-American continues today, Professor Lester adds. As recently as the 2012 presidential reelection campaign, some anti-Obama campaign paraphernalia included references to both the president and Michelle Obama as monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees.
“All of these narratives are part of the same reduction of the black body to an animal or subhuman status that has gone on since slavery days,” he says.
For some, the publication of this letter with its unambiguous attack on a major historical figure reopens old wounds, says Mark Naison, professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University in New York.
“The letter is not only a shocking example of administrative overreach by an intelligence agency, it reflects an attempt to undermine the Civil Rights movement on the part of the most powerful nonelected public official in the United States,” he says, via e-mail. It also prompts questions about how much the FBI actually did to protect civil rights leaders, he adds.
The appearance of this document now is, indeed, “a double-edged sword,” says Beverly Hills psychiatrist, Carole Lieberman.
On the positive side, she says via e-mail, “it wakes us up to the realities of not putting complete trust in our government, but on the negative side, it wakes us up to the realities of not putting complete trust in our government ... at a time when our trust has already been shaken to the core.”