Upper School News & Stories
It’s hard to imagine a more rancorous relationship than the one between J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the one side was Hoover, the nation’s chief crime fighter, upholding his idea of America; on the other side was King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, leading a crusade for a new America. The clash of their ideologies and personalities tells a fascinating story about civil rights, and just as importantly, privacy rights in America.
Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University, told the Riverdale 11th grade on Thursday that while this story is often viewed through the lens of the civil rights movement, it is about more than racism. It demonstrates the dangers that can result when the government uses the rationale of a perceived “threat to national security” to violate an individual’s privacy, and, more dangerously, attempt to destroy a life.
The potential for this kind of abuse continues today as the government collects vast amounts of data on individuals, much of it electronic. “We don’t have the balance right between openness and secrecy yet,” Gage said.
Gage spoke to the students as part of their interdisciplinary “Constructing America” course, which is co-taught by the English and history departments. Her talk was sponsored by the Reginald E. Zelnik ’52 Memorial Lecture Series. Zelnik had a distinguished career as a Russian studies professor and civil liberties advocate at the University of California at Berkeley. His brother and other family members attended the event.
Gage is writing a biography of Hoover, the one-time head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who held the top law-enforcement job in American for 48 years. Hoover wielded extraordinary power to investigate and manipulate individuals. One of his targets was King.
Last summer, Gage made a major discovery, “a personal triumph,” she said, about the depth of Hoover’s enmity toward King. While doing research at the National Archives in Washington, she found the uncensored document known as the “suicide letter,” an anonymous threat known to be written by the FBI that accused King of sexual misconduct.
Sent at the peak of King’s influence as he was receiving the Nobel Prize, the letter implied that he should kill himself to prevent the damaging information from being made public. The recent movie Selma dramatized this episode.
Previously only heavily redacted versions of the document had been available to the public. Gage wrote about this finding in an article in The New York Times, noting the extraordinarily incendiary language employed to pressure King.
Gage told the students that while the public now views King as a hero and Hoover as a villain, at the time, the story was not so simple. Hoover viewed King as a threat to national security due to his close relationship with three advisors associated with the Communist Party USA. This was the height of the Cold War, and the Community Party was thought to include Russian spies and receive funding from the Soviet Union. The U.S. government had many suspected Communists under surveillance.
The Kennedy administration pressured King to dissociate himself from the men, but King refused. Hoover’s distrust of King then deepened into an obsession with what he viewed as King’s immorality and he sought evidence of King’s infidelities. Telephone wiretaps required legal authorization, but not bugs in hotel rooms.
Gage noted that it is difficult to know what constitutes a valid security threat as events are unfolding. While Hoover has been discredited now, he was respected at the time. She said a 1964 public opinion poll comparing Hoover and King showed that 50 percent of respondents supported Hoover, 16 percent supported King, and the rest were undecided.
Seeking the truth and yet protecting personal privacy is a difficult balance for governments, and must be handled with respect and care, she said. It is a complex task for historians as well as they sift through evidence to understand events.
“History is a process of discovery,” she said. “We only still know a tiny fraction of what is out there about the past.”