In 1964 the FBI mailed Martin Luther King, Jr. a graphic letter, purporting to be sent by a former supporter, accusing King of conducting extramarital affairs (allegedly documented on an enclosed recording) and ending with the warning that, “There is only one thing left for you to do.” King interpreted the letter—whose existence has been officially acknowledged since a Congressional investigation in the 1970s—to mean he should commit suicide. (A Congressional report also concluded that the message “clearly implied that suicide would be a suitable course of action for Dr. King.”) Public copies of the letter have always been heavily redacted—until Yale historian Beverly Gage found the full document in longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s files at the National Archives. It’s intense:
Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. You will find yourself and in all your dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk exposed on the record for all time … Listen to yourself you filthy, abormal animal.
Gage, writing about the letter in the New York Times Magazine, says the FBI tried to interest journalists in covering King’s affairs but was unsuccessful:
Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often — though not always — a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.
Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious.
The press’s refusal to report on King’s affairs is certainly lucky in some sense, given the good that he did between 1964 and his death in 1968. But does that mean—as Gage seems to imply—that not writing about the dubious personal conduct of one of the country’s most well-known moral authorities was the right decision? That would seem like an odd position for a historian engaged in documenting salacious accusations against Martin Luther King, Jr. to take.