When Martin Luther King requested a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover in 1964, the FBI director’s first instinct was to refuse. His reason was simple: He detested King.
“I held him in complete contempt,” Hoover later told Time magazine. “First I felt I shouldn’t see him, but then I thought he might become a martyr if I didn’t.”
Hoover hated King for several reasons, according to former FBI assistant director William C. Sullivan. First, King’s attorney and friend Stanley Levison was a former Communist, which raised Hoover’s suspicions. Also, King dared to criticize the FBI for failing to solve civil rights–related crimes, which angered the thin-skinned G-man. And, as Sullivan wrote in his memoir, “Hoover was opposed to change, to the civil rights movement, and to blacks.”
In 1963 Hoover used the King-Levison connection to convince Attorney General Robert Kennedy to let the FBI tap King’s phones and bug his hotel rooms. The bugs revealed that King enjoyed sexual relations with women other than his wife, which disgusted Hoover, a lifelong bachelor whose own sex life (if any) remains a mystery. Hoover shared his tapes of King’s sexual romps with President Lyndon Johnson, who gleefully played them for his aides. Hoover also ordered his underlings to leak information on King’s sex life to reporters.
In private, Hoover called King “the burrhead” and “a tom cat with degenerate sexual urges.” When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964, Hoover wrote his reaction on a news clipping: “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize.” A month later, Hoover revealed his enmity in public. “In my opinion,” he told a gathering of women reporters, “Dr. Martin Luther King is the most notorious liar in the country.”
That comment ignited a firestorm of controversy that led to the now legendary meeting between Hoover and King.
“I was appalled and surprised at your reported statement maligning my integrity,” King wrote in a telegram he fired off to Hoover. “What motivated such an irresponsible accusation is a mystery to me.”
King also responded to the accusation with public remarks designed to placate Hoover: “I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure….I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.”
Perhaps those soothing words might have warmed Hoover’s heart if the FBI’s wiretaps hadn’t recorded King uttering less soothing words in his private conversations: The director, King said, “is old and senile.” Hoover didn’t appreciate that. Nor did he relish the wiretap revelation that King and his aides were discussing how to pressure President Johnson to fire—or at least reprimand—the director.
Soon, Newsweek reported that the president had decided to “find a new chief of the FBI.” Johnson denied that report but the old chief still worried.
When Hoover learned that King’s wife was overheard on a wiretap saying that she hoped her husband could meet the director, Hoover wrote, “I have no intention of seeing King.”
As it turned out, he had no choice. “Johnson ordered Hoover to meet with King and patch things up,” Sullivan recalled.
“Make sure the meeting is in my office,” Hoover ordered his aide Cartha DeLoach. “And no press. Do you hear me, no press!”
DeLoach did not inform the press about the meeting but King’s aides did, and when the civil rights leader arrived at Hoover’s office on the afternoon of December 1, 1964, he saw a mob of reporters waiting outside.
Hoover, then 69, rose from his desk and shook hands with King, 35, and his aides, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with you,” King said. He told Hoover that he appreciated the work the FBI had done in civil rights cases and said it was “vitally necessary” that he and Hoover work together. “Many Negroes have complained that the FBI has been ineffective but I, myself discount such criticism,” King said. “And I want to assure you that I have been seriously misquoted in the matter of slurs against the FBI.”
King’s conciliatory statement took about two minutes. After that, Hoover spoke without stopping for most of the next hour. He started by denouncing the wiles of communists, telling stories from the 1920s, then he segued into a long lecture on the wonderful things the FBI was doing to enforce civil rights laws and put the “fear of God” into the Ku Klux Klan.
As Hoover rambled on, DeLoach took notes, which were later released under the Freedom of Information Act. In his memo, eight consecutive paragraphs begin with “The Director told King…” or “The Director explained…” or “The Director made reference….” Meanwhile, America’s greatest orator simply sat and listened.
“Hoover did all the talking,” William Sullivan observed in his memoir. “He always did.”
“I would like to give you some advice, Dr. King,” Hoover said near the end of his monologue. “One of the greatest things you could accomplish for your people would be to encourage them to register and vote.” Hoover also suggested that King turn his attention to educating black people so they could get better jobs.
At that point, somebody—DeLoach didn’t reveal who—asked Hoover why the FBI didn’t have more black agents.
“The problem is, we require not only a college diploma, but in most cases an advanced degree,” Hoover said. “We won’t water down our qualifications because of the color of a person’s skin.”
Soon, the allotted hour elapsed and the meeting ended. Hoover’s filibuster had succeeded in preventing any discussion of the issues that had prompted the meeting.
“We never got around to discussing the ‘most notorious liar’ business. Nor did we even get to mention the FBI surveillance,” Andrew Young later wrote in his memoir. “In fact, nothing happened except that Hoover rambled on and on about the virtues of the FBI.”
Ironically, as the meeting dragged on, an FBI agent showed one of the reporters waiting outside Hoover’s office—James McCartney of the Chicago Daily News—a photo of King and a woman leaving a motel room.
When King emerged from Hoover’s office, he told re porters that the meeting had been “very friendly, very amicable.” Hoover didn’t offer any comment. But in 1970, two years after King’s assassination, he described the meeting to a Time reporter.
“King was very suave and smooth,” Hoover said. “He sat right there where you’re sitting and said he never criticized the FBI. I said, ‘Mr. King’—I never called him reverend— ‘stop right there. You’re lying….If you ever say anything that’s a lie again, I’ll brand you a liar again.’ Strange to say, he never attacked the Bureau again for as long as he lived.”
That was an exciting story—the righteous G-man facing down the mendacious agitator. But nobody else remembered that confrontation—not Young, not Abernathy, not even the loyal DeLoach, who was taking notes that afternoon.
Which raises an interesting question: Who was the most notorious liar in the country?
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.