Justice  /  Argument

When the FBI Targeted the Poor People’s Campaign

Recently unearthed surveillance documents show how the FBI tried to destroy the Poor People’s Movement.
Wikimedia Commons

As a historian of the FBI and US social movements, I’ve been paying close attention to the furor that has erupted in response to historian David Garrow’s sensational essay on Martin Luther King Jr’s sex life published in a conservative British magazine. Garrow — who authored the 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. and won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 biography of the civil rights icon — made shocking new claims about King based on findings in recently declassified FBI documents. Among other things, Garrow enumerates vivid details of King’s extramarital affairs, patronage of prostitutes, and participation in orgies. Most shocking, he claims that in January 1964 King watched while a male colleague raped a young woman in a hotel room.Professional historians, journalists, and respected elders of the civil rights movement have been swift to reply, the majority with strong criticism. Historians have raised important critiques of Garrow, questioning his professional ethics, calling out his lack of historical context, and challenging his sloppy analysis of FBI surveillance documents culled from the National Archives’ massive digital cache of recently declassified John F. Kennedy assassination records.

A problem runs throughout the debate, however. Some historians have made the mistake of categorically dismissing the reliability of FBI surveillance records as historical sources. None of these historians are experts on the FBI. Garrow, on the other hand, has held up his credentials as a historian of the FBI to defend his article. In an interview, he claimed to have “received 100% support from all . . . FBI scholars whom I’ve been in touch with.”

I am one of the FBI scholars who emailed Garrow, but I did not do so to express support for his highly problematic essay. I wrote asking Garrow to share missing pages of the FBI surveillance report he used as the basis for his most serious allegation about Dr King. Garrow obliged and informed me that despite the uproar over his article, I was the only person who had inquired for this key piece of evidence.

After carefully studying the FBI documents, I have concluded that the “evidence” Garrow cited for his rape accusation is inconclusive. At the same time, however, we cannot reject the FBI sources out of hand.

A core problem with Garrow’s article centers not on the nature of the surveillance documents he uncovered, but on how he interpreted and presented these sources. A reevaluation of Garrow’s evidence sheds light on an important story he chose not to tell: how, in early 1968, the FBI sought to undermine the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement for racial and economic justice that, if successful, would have fundamentally transformed America’s social landscape.