The legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remains strong as ever, but rumors about his private indiscretions once threatened to dismantle it. In 1964, a secret letter, eventually traced back to the FBI, was sent to King’s residence threatening to expose his infidelity if he didn’t leave the civil rights movement.
As King was out-of-town when it reached his home, the letter was first read by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. The author used the term “evil” a handful of times to describe the civil rights leader while also calling him “immoral” and “a fraud.”
King’s extramarital affairs, discovered as the FBI sought to expose him as a Communist were used as a way to convince King to leave his work at the center of the movement. It even named the lovers King took, although his affairs were common knowledge to those around him. King and his colleagues banded together to respond to the letter, suspected then, and later confirmed, to be the handiwork of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover’s unhealthy obsession with King and other civil rights leaders would ultimately become his own undoing as his efforts to crush the civil rights and Black Power movements through measures both fair and foul were exposed.
In the chilling final paragraph of the letter, the author, who never identifies himself, suggests King take action in a way that is difficult to decipher to this day.
“There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is,” warns the author. Since the discovery of the original, unedited letter by Yale American History professor Beverly Gage, there has been speculation about what the warning meant. Some took it to mean that King needed to follow the letter’s 34-day deadline and come forward about his behavior. Others thought that the FBI wanted King to commit suicide.
Hoover’s campaign to drive King from the movement failed as no media of the time would report on his personal life. In the nearly 48 years since his assassination, King, once reviled by his critics, has since risen to iconic status and even has a monument in his honor in Washington, D.C. Hoover, on the other hand, occupies a less favorable place in the annals of history, although the FBI headquarters in the same city still carries his name.