What is the meaning of the headline-capturing FBI report about Martin Luther King, Jr. that the U.S. National Archives unveiled for public viewing last week?

The blistering 20-page report, dated March 12, 1968, contains raw, unsubstantiated material about King’s alleged sexual impropriety. The report is more newsworthy for what it says about the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover than what it says about King.

The 1968 document is a lone, oddly intermingled item in a massive data dump this fall of declassified government files that deal with President John Kennedy’s assassination. But it is the report on King that has created the greatest furor because of its sensational claims.

One has it that King fathered an out-of-wedlock child. A second says he had an affair with Joan Baez. A third says he participated in “group sexual orgies.” Those are new, salacious – and again, unsubstantiated – allegations. The charge that King engaged in extramarital relations is nothing new. In a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on March 4, 1968, he himself confessed to his congregation that he was a “sinner like all of God’s children,” presumably referring to his marital infidelity. Highly regarded biographies of King and a memoir by his close friend and aide, Ralph Abernathy detail King’s sexual liaisons outside marriage.

So what was the import of the March 1968 report? By the winter of 1968 the bureau was ramping up a covert campaign to discredit King in its continuing effort to subvert his leadership of the civil rights movement. The report is best understood as a piece in that dark mosaic.

The FBI would eventually come under suspicion for having been complicit in King’s assassination, a conspiracy theory for which no credible evidence has ever emerged despite exhaustive investigation into the matter by the Justice Department and the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations. But the FBI did relentlessly engage in the character assassination of King under Hoover’s rogue, unlawful direction.

Starting in the early 1960s, the FBI had been trying to discredit King by leaking allegations that Communists controlled him and that he and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were perpetrating financial crimes. The FBI pursued those lines of attack by wiretapping King’s phones, recruiting informants within the movement and investigating him by other means. The FBI, however, kept hitting dead ends.

A frustrated Hoover turned to another avenue to damage King’s reputation. He unleashed the bureau to pry into the civil rights leader’s sex life. Among the underhanded tactics employed were the bugging of King’s hotel rooms and the mailing to King of an audiotape recording meant to blackmail him. The recording, which wound up, first, in the hands of his wife, Coretta, captured a hotel room assignation between him and another woman. A note accompanying the recording in effect urged King to kill himself or risk exposure.

In March 1968 King was embarking on the Poor People’s Campaign. He was summoning thousands of poor people to Washington, D.C., for weeks, perhaps months, of massive protest, to pressure lawmakers into enacting a sweeping federal antipoverty program.

As the Poor People’s Campaign neared its start in late April 1968, the FBI was intensifying the smear operation against King, aiming to derail it. Hoover commanded FBI agents around the country to cook up various schemes to dissuade poor people from coming to Washington to join King in demonstrations.

One scheme would falsely link King to the highly controversial Nation of Islam in order to derail fund-raising. Another would spread disinformation to muddle King’s speaking schedule and frustrate prospective volunteers. Yet a third would falsely warn that participants in the antipoverty mobilization would lose their welfare checks. A special agent pretending to be a businessman already had called the office in Detroit of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference offering buses to transport volunteers to Washington. The FBI had no intention of providing buses. It was a ruse that would confound volunteers and might deter them from going to Washington altogether.

Such was the context in which the FBI compiled the March 12, 1968 report. Its purpose was to take stock of the FBI’s anti-King ammunition as Hoover prepared to assault King’s reputation so as to undermine the Poor People’s Campaign. As a window on how a federal official without regard for law and decency can intrude into a citizen’s privacy for nefarious political purpose, the release of the report is a timely reminder of how government power can run amok.

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