Some Different Ways of Looking at Selma


a film directed by Ava DuVernay
Dan Budnik/Contact Press Images
Archbishop Iakovos, Martin Luther King Jr., and other dignitaries walking to the Dallas County Courthouse to hang a funeral wreath in honor of Reverend James Reeb, a civil rights activist who was beaten and killed by white segregationists, Selma, Alabama, March 1965; photograph by Dan Budnik from his book Marching to the Freedom Dream, which includes an essay by Harry Belafonte and has just been published by Trolley

On November 18, 1964, not long before Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over responsibility for the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, J. Edgar Hoover, closet case and cross-dresser, told a group of women journalists visiting FBI headquarters that he considered King “the most notorious liar in the country.”

The following day King issued a statement saying that perhaps Hoover had become overwhelmed by the burdens of his office. He sent Hoover a lengthy telegram of reproach, in which he reiterated his criticisms of the bureau, including its inability to secure convictions for crimes against civil rights workers and its failure to make arrests for the tragic deaths of four girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 or the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. King observed that the FBI worked too closely with local law enforcement in the South on other criminal matters to have the necessary detachment in cases in which the rights and safety of Negro citizens were threatened by those same law enforcement officers.

The day after King sent his telegram, Hoover’s assistant director composed a letter pretending to be from a black person with knowledge of King’s extramarital affairs:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes…. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God and act as you do.

The letter hinted that King ought to kill himself.

Stanley Levison, a Jewish businessman and former Communist Party USA member, had been in King’s inner circle and would soon be again, which to Hoover made King a possible tool of the Soviets. It was on such grounds that Hoover had pressured Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps on King’s home and the SCLC offices in Atlanta during the Kennedy administration. Expanded FBI surveillance included bugging King’s hotel rooms. Hoover was irate when King received the Nobel Peace Prize. His assistant director had an FBI agent mail from Miami the above letter to King, along with a tape of King’s sexual escapades in a Washington, D.C., hotel.

No mention of dirty tricks was made in Washington at the December 1 meeting King had with Hoover to try to settle the “liar” controversy. Before he…

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