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Historical Hackery and the Legacy of Martin Luther King

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Last week, historian David Garrow published a hatchet job article in the British magazine Standpoint in which he used FBI files to allege that Martin Luther King, Jr. had abetted rape one night in 1964. Back in the day, Garrow was a respected historian, at least in some circles, and was awarded a Pulitzer in 1987 for his biography of King. Since then he’s done a variety of things, including writing a biography of Obama a few years ago that most people I know disliked. But this new shit is beyond the pale in its litany of problems.

MLK50: Justice through Journalism reached out to me and asked me to weigh in. Here it is. In part:

What Garrow primarily relies upon to accuse King of abetting rape are not run-of-the-mill FBI surveillance files, created by an agent or agents based upon field observation and submitted to the bureau. Instead, what he leans fully upon to make the accusation is a brief and unattributed handwritten annotation, made in the margins of a typewritten summary of the transcript of an audio surveillance tape — a tape Garrow has never heard. In other words, the degrees of separation between Garrow and any possible way of knowing whether King did the things Garrow’s accusing him of are extensive and extraordinary. FBI agents hostile to King wiretapped his hotel room and recorded events that supposedly occurred there. Then, other FBI agents hostile to King listened to that tape and transcribed it. Then, other FBI agents hostile to King filed a summary of the transcript alleging that a King affiliate had committed rape, and even that summary made no mention of King’s conduct in the room. After the fact, someone else (Garrow does not know who), wrote in the margins that “King looked on, laughed and offered advice.”

Finally, Garrow looked at this file and determined it all must be true, even though he has no corroborating evidence to that one unattributed scrawl in the margins. (A brief note: Garrow is remarkably evasive about his lack of corroborating evidence for all of this. He writes that the Department of Justice in 1977 reviewed the many tapes the FBI had on King, as well as the transcripts of those tapes, and deemed them to be “genuine and accurate.” This is fundamentally different than the DOJ having confirmed the veracity of the allegation Garrow is making about King abetting rape. At least according to Garrow’s own reporting, the DOJ did not review the summary upon which he is singularly reliant for purposes of the rape abetment accusation, making his entire aside about the DOJ little more than a dodge.)

Garrow’s justification for treating an unknown author’s one-sentence scrawl as gospel is this: “Throughout the 1960s, when no precedent for the public release of FBI documents existed or was even anticipated, [Asst. FBI Director William C.] Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day. Similarly, they would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript, both of which remain under court seal and one day will confirm or disprove the FBI’s summary allegation.”

Anyone who has worked with government surveillance files knows this is absurd. I myself have extensive experience working with such material: with FBI files, and even more so, with those of the Chicago police’s infamous “Red Squad” — a local counterpart and frequent partner of the FBI, which like the bureau spent countless resources and manhours trailing, surveilling, infiltrating, destabilizing, and reporting on the actions and motives (real and imagined) of all sorts of leftist organizers and organizations.

Contrary to what Garrow says, the authors of surveillance files on freedom movement activists offered bad information, conjectured and lied all the timein internal correspondence. The mission of surveillance, again and to restate the obvious, was never impartial. It was to destroy and discredit. At the most fundamental level, then, these surveillance files were all about building cases against their subjects — not necessarily legal cases—but sets of internal assessments about particular individuals or organizations that could then serve as justification to take action against those individuals and organizations. Red Squad officers who authored reports on Chicago’s Black Panthers, for example, “inaccurately embellished” their internal reports as a matter of routine, such as falsely reporting in internal files that Fred Hampton was smuggling guns — thereby enhancing the alarm inside the CPD and Chicago’s political class about Hampton and the Panthers. Such embellished surveillance reports could then be used to help manufacture greater repression of target subjects, such as helping grease the skids to obtain search warrants, encourage the use and escalation of violence, and otherwise make the case to superiors in law enforcement and politics that further action was necessary. And they could also be used as a post-hoc justification for why someone like Hampton was a threat in need of elimination.

Misinformation could also be good for people’s careers. High-ranking officials in organizations like the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover most famously) and the Red Squad were vocal about wanting information that they could use to undermine movement organizing, and routinely pressed subordinates for such information. In the arithmetic of such men, what was accurate about someone like King wasn’t necessarily what mattered. What mattered was what was useful as a bludgeon to thwart him. Thus, for subordinates inside these institutions of surveillance, providing information — even if “embellished” or completely fabricated — was giving the bosses what they wanted and establishing a means of getting and staying in their good graces. Up and down the line of the surveillance apparatus, lies and misinformation were commonplace not only in terms of what the FBI and other surveillance operations fed the public but also in what they circulated among themselves.

Garrow should know this. He should know the supposed evidence he is using to accuse King of abetting rape is not in and of itself reliable. That he either does not know it to be unreliable, or knows it to be unreliable and simply doesn’t care, is not only disappointing but a violation of the standard practices of his (and my) profession. Even more shameful is the fact that he has done violence to those professional norms in service of helping a conservative magazine exploit the energy of the #MeToo movement to sell copies. (Standpoint explicitly called it a #MeToo story in the run-up to publication, even though, as black feminist historian Barbara Ransby succinctly put it, “It is not a woman’s voice we are being asked to believe here but the F.B.I.’s.”)

Not until 2027, as part of a larger evidentiary release, is the audiotape of what allegedly transpired in that D.C. hotel room scheduled to be unsealed. When that time comes, it will be up to responsible researchers to analyze what the tape reveals, and then for us all to proceed from there. Unfortunately, thanks to Garrow and until that time, we are left sitting with this grenade of an allegation that is not only unverified but unverifiable.

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