Martin, Coretta and Elizabeth: Persistence and Silence

The FBI is part of the Department of Justice. If Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is confirmed as Attorney General, he will technically be in charge of the FBI. That’s the same FBI that once sent the following warning to Martin Luther King Jr. in November 1964.

The note is just a single sheet gone yellow with age, typewritten and tightly spaced. It’s rife with typos and misspellings and sprinkled with attempts at emending them. Clearly, some effort went into perfecting the tone, that of a disappointed admirer, appalled by the discovery of “hidious [sic] abnormalities” in someone he once viewed as “a man of character.”

The word “evil” makes six appearances in the text, beginning with an accusation: “You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.” In the paragraphs that follow, the recipient’s alleged lovers get the worst of it. They are described as “filthy dirty evil companions” and “evil playmates,” all engaged in “dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk.” The effect is at once grotesque and hypnotic, an obsessive’s account of carnal rage and personal betrayal. “What incredible evilness,” the letter proclaims, listing off “sexual orgies,” “adulterous acts” and “immoral conduct.” Near the end, it circles back to its initial target, denouncing him as an “evil, abnormal beast.”

The unnamed author suggests intimate knowledge of his correspondent’s sex life, identifying one possible lover by name and claiming to have specific evidence about others. Another passage hints of an audiotape accompanying the letter, apparently a recording of “immoral conduct” in action. “Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure,” the letter demands. It concludes with a deadline of 34 days “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

“There is only one thing left for you to do,” the author warns vaguely in the final paragraph. “You know what it is.”

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received this letter, nearly 50 years ago, he quietly informed friends that someone wanted him to kill himself — and he thought he knew who that someone was. Despite its half-baked prose, self-conscious amateurism and other attempts at misdirection, King was certain the letter had come from the F.B.I. Its infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, made no secret of his desire to see King discredited. A little more than a decade later, the Senate’s Church Committee on intelligence overreach confirmed King’s suspicion.

Only a few days before Hoover’s deputy William Sullivan dispatched an agent to Miami to mail this letter and audio tape to King, Hoover held a press conference in Washington DC and called King “the most notorious liar in the country.”

King must have been alarmed at the time. How would you feel if you got a letter like that along with a cassette tape proving that your most intimate moments were being surveilled by the government? How would you feel if the FBI was blackmailing you and suggesting that the only way out is suicide?

Nevertheless, he persisted.

He persisted in his effort to win voting rights for African-Americans, and then to win housing rights, and to get economic justice, and to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

In 1999, a civil jury found that Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was a conspiracy involving the Memphis police department, the FBI and other government agencies. At the time, his widow Coretta Scott King said “I think that if people will look at the evidence that we have, it’s conclusive and I think the Justice Department has a responsibility to do what it feels is the right thing to do, the just thing to do.”

I’m not willing to say that the evidence provided at that trial was conclusive. It was compelling, to be sure, but some doubt remains and the government certainly denies it. What’s not in doubt is that Coretta was convinced of it.

She was also convinced in 1986 that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was a reactionary opponent of everything her husband had achieved and was ill-suited to serve as a District Court Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. That’s why she wrote Judiciary Chairman Strom Thurmond a letter opposing his confirmation. Here’s the short version of that letter.

Screen Shot 2017-02-07 at 9.41.56 PM

The full version can be found here.

Last night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren attempted to read this letter on the Senate floor and was silenced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for violating Rule 19 of the Senate. Apparently, the act of repeating what Coretta Scott King had written to the Senate Judiciary Committee was a violation of the rules because it “impugned” the character of Jeff Sessions.

In explaining his actions, McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

The reference to being warned apparently refers back to an earlier point in her speech when she quoted Sen. Teddy Kennedy who had said in a statement opposing Sessions’ confirmation that he was “a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.”

So, she was warned for quoting Sen. Kennedy and silenced for quoting Coretta Scott King.

A lot of women are wondering why this then happened:

Hours after GOP leaders blocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing for attorney general, Jeff Merkley picked it up and read the document uninterrupted.

I applaud Sen. Jeff Merkley for standing in solidarity with his silenced colleague, but I have to wonder if there is a secret penis rule that makes it okay for men to quote prominent historical figures who are critical of senators and not okay for women to do so.

The quote, “Nevertheless, she persisted” has now gone viral, and it’s fitting since King did the same thing when the FBI tried to blackmail him into silence, and Coretta did the same thing in trying to uncover the truth about her husband’s assassination.

I’d like to point out one last thing. Rule 19 is a good rule that helps prevent canings on the Senate floor. But it really should never apply to a senator who is under consideration for confirmation to another office. If Warren and Merkley were reading these historical documents just to make Sessions look bad while they were arguing over the budget, that would be a legitimate violation of the rules. But these documents were germane to Sessions’ fitness for the office of Attorney General in the same way that his tax returns and voting record are germane.

McConnell misused the rules and abused his power.

And he did more to raise awareness about Sessions’ racist past than he did to safeguard his “character.”

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.