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Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall

Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall

Marshall won several major Supreme Court cases outlawing segregation in housing, transportation, and in 1954 won Brown v Board of Education, desegregating public schools. However, frustrated by the foot-dragging and the remaining forms of Jim Crow, non-violent protests became a popular tactics for black activists. Marches, speeches, and boycotts increased in the 1950s, and led to a revival of the civil rights movement. It was one such protest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that propelled to fame a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. Though both were leading figures in the civil rights movement, Marshall and King often had a difficult relationship because of Marshall’s belief that segregation would be overturned in the courts, not the streets. Increasing that friction, FBI Director Hoover spied on both of them, fearing Communists would gain entrée into the American mainstream through the burgeoning social movement.

Q: Did (Hoover) fear that King was a communist?
A: He just had an absolute blur on communism. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know what happened to him, I don’t know what happened but something happened.

No, it was personal. He bugged everything King had. Everything. And the guy that did it was a friend of a private detective in New York who’s a good friend of mine, Buck Owens. He called up and said, Buck, do you know Martin Luther King? And he said, no. He said do you know anybody that goes? He said yes. He said well you please tell him, don’t use my name but I’m in the group that’s bugging everything he’s got. Even when he goes to the toilet. I mean we’ve bugged everything and I think it’s a dirty damn trick and he ought to know about it.

So Buck called me and I called Brother King. He was in Atlanta then. And I told him about it and he said, oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn’t interest him. That’s what he said. He didn’t care, no.

Q: How do you interpret that?
A: I don’t and I’ve never been able to. That he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Well they ain’t nobody who can say that. Right. Right. And when I called him up and told him that his house was bugged and all, he said so what? Doesn’t bother me. That’s what he said.

Q: Did you guys know about all this sex stuff that they talk about these days?
A: I knew that the stories were out. And I knew who was putting them out.

Q: Mr. Hoover?
A: No, it was a private police business. They used to settle strikes and everything. [Pinkertons] I’m not saying whether, I don’t know, I don’t know whether he was right or Hoover was right. I don’t know which one was right.

Q: What did you think about the fact that he didn’t care about being bugged?
A: Well, the answer was simple. I don’t know if a man can humanly do all the things. Five and six times a night with five and six different women. We add it all up, I mean he just couldn’t be all them places at the same time. I don’t believe in it personally. But I don’t know, when I was solicitor general, a lot of things came by, arguments between the attorney general and the director of the FBI and I, by internal rules, had to get copies of all of it. And we had to have a special safe and I know that of all the things that I listened to and read, I never found Mr. Hoover to have lied once. Not once. I don’t know, I’m not saying he always told the truth –

Q: You never found him to have lied?
A: That’s right. I mean he was never proved to be a liar. He always came up with the right stuff, usually it would be a taped thing. You can tell by the tape. I don’t know. But that’s between him and, I think the only way to do it would be him and King and put ‘em in the same room. And it’s too late to do that.

Despite Marshall’s sympathy for King, his dislike of the street protests, led to his critical view of King’s tactics and those of his protégé, Jesse Jackson:

Who made Jesse Jackson? The press. Who made Martin Luther King? The press, they do it. Because it writes good, it writes well. And you know Martin Luther King didn’t have a publicity person. No sir. The press did it all. The press did it all.