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Blackmail defeated in the face of values

Nino Rizhamadze

In summer of 2014, a professor of U.S. history in Yale University, Beverly Gage, while researching biography of former FBI Director John Edgar Hoover in the national archives, found an uncensored letter folded in a classified file. The letter was addressed to Martin Luther King. Beverly Gage then published an astonishing essay about the letter in New York Times, providing a detailed account of how FBI blackmailed MLK and consequences of the blackmail.

The essay allows us to draw parallels with Georgia’s contemporary reality, where well-known individuals, political leaders and journalists are threatened with releasing video tapes of their private lives, while several individuals have already suffered as a result of the shocking act.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King made his historic “I have a dream” speech in front of 250 000 people in Washington, DC, at one of the largest and most critical human rights gatherings in the history of the U.S. Following this event, the FBI extended its surveillance to King. They wiretapped his home and office, and bugged his hotel rooms.

The FBI seemed to have been genuinely shocked by King’s behavior. He was a human rights defender and a leader of movement that served the highest moral cause, and he was acting like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.” In response, the FBI officials started spreading rumors about King’s hotel-room activities, hoping to discredit the civil rights leader. Much to their dismay, media did not pick up the story.

In 1964, the Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and a few months later King became the youngest man ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

FBI Director Hoover decided to escalate his campaign against King. On November 18, 1964, he denounced King during Washington news conference, calling him “the most notorious liar in the country”. A few days later, one of Hoover’s deputies named William Sullivan wrote an anonymous letter and sent an agent to Miami to mail the package to King in Atlanta.

The largest section of the letter focused on King’s sex life. The anonymous author was urging King to steps aside and let other men lead the civil rights movement.

You are a colossal fraud and evil, vicious one at that“, „what incredible evilness“, “sexual orgies“, „acts of adultery and immoral conduct“ „evil, abnormal beast“,  „there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is“.

The anonymous letter to King was filled with these epithets. The author suggested intimate knowledge of the correspondent’s sex life, identifying one possible lover by name and claiming to have concrete evidence about others. 

It is difficult to say whether the FBI wanted to push King aside or to lead him to suicide but one thing was clear – whatever it was the FBI hoped King would do, they wanted it to happen before the Nobel ceremony in December but King did not even see the letter until after his trip to Oslo. According to King’s biographer David Garrow, it was King’s wife, Coretta, who first opened the letter, expecting to find a recording of one of her husband’s speeches. King gathered a group of confidants to figure out what to do. King’s friends and associates soon realized that the letter could have been the work of one institution only – the FBI.

When King read the letter, he told his friends that it was someone’s intention to drive him to suicide and he knew who this person was. He was convinced that it was FBI Director Hoover who had long wanted to discredit King.

The so-called “suicide letter” has occupied a unique place in the history of American intelligence – the most notorious and embarrassing chapter of FBI’s actions.

In her essay Beverly Gage notes that what press did at that time and more importantly, what it didn’t do is almost impossible to imagine in today’s world. With today’s scandal-hungry media, the information would have surely leaked. However, the opposite was proven by Georgian media on March 14, 2016. Despite the reach and effectiveness of means for communication, media chose to protect rights of concrete victims and avoided victimization of society as a whole.

Georgian media demonstrated how one can prevent blackmailers our cyber-terrorists from accomplishing their aims, while the government has failed to protect us from such terror.

We don’t know what these blackmailers are trying to achieve but we can safely assume that their goal was to clear the political field by discrediting famous journalists and politicians. The blackmailers were hoping to use other journalists and politicians as a weapon. Therefore, each and every journalist and politician should condemn these facts without citing any moral norms or making any implications, and protect these people from being morally discredited.

No one knows if the civil rights movement had been as effective and powerful as it was, had media or King’s associated made details of his sexual life public and discredited the leader of the movement.

Half a century later, because of the position that American media chose to take, we see King as a model of courage and human dignity, while Hoover’s name has been associated with shame and dishonor. 

Photo credit: National Archives, College Park, Maryland