How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech
Their one and only meeting lasted barely a minute. On March 26, 1964, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X came to Washington to observe the beginning of the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. They shook hands. They smiled for the cameras. As they parted, Malcolm said jokingly, “Now you’re going to get investigated.”
That, of course, was well underway. Ever since Attorney General Robert Kennedy had approved FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s request in October 1963, King had been the target of extraordinary wiretapping sanctioned by his own government. By this point, five months later, the taps were overflowing with data from King’s home, his office, and the hotel rooms where he stayed.
The data the FBI mined—initially about King’s associations with Communists and later about his sexual life—was used in an attempt to, depending on your point of view, protect the country or destroy the civil rights leader. Hoover and his associates tried to get “highlights” to the press, the president, even Pope Paul VI. So pervasive was this effort that it extended all the way to the small campus in Western Massachusetts, Springfield College, where I have taught journalism for the past 15 years.
In early 1964, King was invited by Springfield President Glenn Olds to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address on June 14. But just days after King accepted the invitation, the FBI tried to get the college to rescind it. The Bureau asked Massachusetts Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a corporator of Springfield College, to lean on Olds to “uninvite” King, based on damning details from the wiretap.
The FBI and Martin Luther King
“I'm trying to wait until things cool off,” King said, “until this civil rights debate is over—as long as they may be tapping these phones, you know."
Read the full story by David Garrow in the July/August 2002 Atlantic
King’s biographers have recorded little about this episode. Neither David Garrow nor Taylor Branch—who both won Pulitzers for books about King—ever mentioned Glenn Olds by name or title. Saltonstall is relegated to a one-sentence footnote in Garrow’s The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., a groundbreaking 1981 book that unmasked the Bureau’s extensive surveillance of the civil rights leader. In the hardcover edition of Branch’s 2006 book, At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume of a towering trilogy about America in the King years that took more than two decades to create, the renowned historian wrote that Saltonstall had “helped block an honorary degree at Springfield College, by spreading the FBI’s clandestine allegations that King was a philandering, subversive fraud.”
There was just one problem with this lively statement. Nobody blocked an honorary degree for Martin Luther King at Springfield College.
It was a small lapse by a formidable researcher and masterful storyteller. But lurking beneath this mistake is a great and almost entirely untold story about the most important figure of the civil rights era and a maverick college president facing his moment of truth.
A school of music that studies the rhythm of nature, a school of fashion that studies the elegance of the Universe, a school of design that studies the architecture of the ancients, a school of philosophy that studies the time-tested Truth.
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