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MLK Laughed Off Kennedy's Demands to Cancel March on Washington: Excerpt from 'The Politics of Deception'

By    |   Friday, 27 February 2015 01:54 PM

Excerpt from the book The Politics of Deception: JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba by Patrick J. Sloyan

J. Edgar Hoover also told the Kennedy brothers that at Levison’s recommendation, King had hired Hunter “Jack” O’Dell to administer the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference— the civil rights leader’s political organization. Levison warned King of O’Dell’s past connections with American communists, but King brushed them off. “No matter what a man was,” King told Levison, “if he could stand up now and say he is not connected, then as far as I am concerned, he is eligible to work for me.” When the attorney general’s office was alerted to the fact that King’s senior adviser had a communist connection, Bobby ordered Justice officials to give King a series of warnings. In most cases, King thanked them for their concern but said little. But when Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s adviser on civil rights, alerted King, the civil rights leader expressed doubt about the FBI’s facts.

The threat of exposure of a political opponent is a staple dirty trick in American politics. The brothers Kennedy were masters of hardball tactics. If the warnings were also designed to rattle King, even slow the pace of demonstrations, this didn’t work, even after the president himself applied the pressure. At the June 22 White House meeting with civil rights leaders, Kennedy took King into the Rose Garden for a private chat. “I assume you know you’re under very close surveillance,” Kennedy said, putting his hand on King’s shoulder. Then he told King that Levison and O’Dell were communists and were under the control of the Soviet Union. “You’ve got to get rid of them,” Kennedy said. The president argued that Levison and O’Dell were still active in Communist Party affairs. Disclosure of their communist ties could weaken chances for civil rights legislation, Kennedy said. “If they shoot you down, they’ll shoot us down, too,” the president said. Bobby Kennedy later recalled it was a harsh exchange.

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“The president was very firm and strong with him,” Bobby said. King was dismissive. “He sort of laughs about a lot of these things. Makes fun of it,” Bobby said. King challenged the president’s facts about O’Dell’s communist activities. “I don’t know he’s got to do all that—he’s got two jobs with me,” King shot back. Besides, King said there was no proof that Levison was a communist agent. King’s defiance clearly upset Kennedy. At one point, the president’s face turned red and he shook with anger, according to King.

After the exchange in the Rose Garden, the two rejoined the other leaders to discuss plans for an August 28 March on Washington. More than 250,000 Americans showed up to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, now considered one of the finest speeches of the twentieth century. Portions are broadcast every year to mark Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday. But on June 22, 1963, Kennedy was opposed to the mass demonstration planned for August 28 in the nation’s capital just as Congress was starting hearings on civil rights legislation.

“It seemed to me a great mistake to announce a march on Washington before the bill was even in committee,” Kennedy told the leaders. “We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol.” Opponents would call the march a gun to the head of Congress. Many other administration programs would be lost. “I may lose the next election because of this,” Kennedy said to stress his commitment. “I don’t care.”

King admitted that the schedule for the march might be awkward. “But frankly, I have never engaged in any direct action movement which did not seem ill timed,” King said. “Some people thought Birmingham was ill timed.” Despite the president’s demands, a defiant King continued to organize the March on Washington. And he continued to consult Levison and have contacts with O’Dell. Bobby learned of the contacts through new FBI wiretaps on the telephone of King’s lawyer, Clarence Jones. For all the intercepts over a nineteenmonth period, the FBI failed to produce any hint that King was part of a Moscow-controlled Communist conspiracy.

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David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, combed 17,000 FBI files for evidence against Levison. “The case against Levison is in legal terms so weak as to be virtually worthless,” Garrow concluded. Many of the FBI files of that era are filled with hearsay, the sort of nudge nudge (wink wink) gossip aimed at smearing suspected targets of Hoover’s obsessions. Despite the FBI’s dry hole, Bobby authorized a third program of tapping and bugging, this time of King himself. The attorney general signed two orders: October 10 for King’s home and October 21 for the office of the SCLC. Bobby would later say these wiretaps were justified based on the fear that public exposure of the communist connections of King’s advisers might derail the civil rights bill in Congress. “This is also the reason that President Kennedy and I and the Justice Department were so reserved about him,” Bobby Kennedy said.

There was another, more sinister reason as well. The attorney general spelled it out to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis while preparing an oral history for the Kennedy Library in March of 1964. “King was in a very vulnerable position,” Bobby told Lewis. “First, because of his association with members of the Communist Party, about whom he had been warned.” Also, “to see what other activities he was involved in. I think there were rumors.” With nothing new on the communist front from the intercepts, Bobby trolled for personal information that would provide leverage on King. The “rumors” were verified two month before Bobby met with Lewis. The telephone tap on Jones revealed King planned to spend two nights at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., starting January 5, 1964. The FBI planted a listening device in the room before King arrived. The bug recorded the Baptist minister participating in what sounded like a sex orgy with two women. Other bugs in other hotel rooms would also record King’s extramarital relations.

To Lewis, Bobby expressed his disapproval of King’s hotel room behavior, but his exact criticisms were sealed from public view by the Kennedy Library. In giving approval for the invasion of King’s privacy, Bobby lifted his foot off the neck of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director was a racist with a deep-seated hatred of King. Three days after these recordings were made, Hoover had launched the most elaborate smear campaign by the federal government in the history of the United States. When Hoover heard the Willard recordings on January 10, he was elated. “They will destroy the burr head,” Hoover told his deputy, William Sullivan.

Transcripts from the recordings at the Willard along with copies of the tapes were prepared for wide distribution within the government, including to the new president at the White House. Johnson found them more entertaining than shocking. As did his predecessor, Johnson had a long list of liaisons outside his marriage to Lady Bird. The FBI offered transcripts to newsmen, but many refused to take them and none published accounts of King’s sexual activities. Sexual antics by political leaders were taboo topics for the media in those days. In closed-door testimony on January 29, Hoover laid out the details of the King tapes, which spread rapidly to right-wing congressmen and segregationists. Representative Howard Smith, a Virginia Democrat, planned a floor speech on the subject. But Smith was waved off by the FBI. “Despite our desire to see the scoundrel exposed,” Deke DeLoach of the FBI told Smith, the exposure might disrupt other operations. FBI agents bugged almost every hotel room King used in 1964. Neither Bobby, still the attorney general until December 1964, nor the new president, Lyndon Johnson, did anything to disrupt the FBI’s smear campaign, even though they knew what Hoover was doing.

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When Hoover learned King planned to meet with Pope Paul VI, the FBI contacted New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman and urged him to warn the Vatican about King’s extramarital behavior. FBI records indicate Spellman alerted Rome, but the pope went ahead with the King meeting. When King was named winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover was outraged. Federal agencies participating in the awards ceremony as well as U.S. embassies were supplied with the FBI dirt on King. One package of the recordings was sent to King, where it was opened by his wife, Coretta. It contained a note written by a Hoover deputy to King. “King there is only one thing left for you to do,” said the unsigned note. “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

President Kennedy had been dead for two months when the Willard Hotel recordings were made. Some apologists said Bobby was a grief-stricken attorney general unable to focus on Hoover’s smearing of King. But Bobby was just as bad as Hoover when it came to demeaning King’s image with the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. In a June 4, 1964, interview, Mrs. Kennedy at first said it was her husband but later said it was Bobby who told her about King, “how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women. I mean, sort of an orgy in the hotel and everything. Bobby told me of the tapes of these orgies.

“I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible,” Jackie said.

Excerpt from the book The Politics of Deception: JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba by Patrick J. Sloyan. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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The brothers Kennedy were masters of hardball tactics. If the warnings were also designed to rattle King, even slow the pace of demonstrations, this didn’t work, even after the president himself applied the pressure.
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Friday, 27 February 2015 01:54 PM
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