Book Examines How FBI Spent Decades Scrutinizing Black Literature; G- Men Kept Eyes on King, Black Writers for Decades; NONFICTION - BOOKS

By Hudson, Repps | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

Book Examines How FBI Spent Decades Scrutinizing Black Literature; G- Men Kept Eyes on King, Black Writers for Decades; NONFICTION - BOOKS


Hudson, Repps, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In his densely written yet startling introduction to "F.B. Eyes," William J. Maxwell brings the reader up short quickly by quoting at length from a malicious letter to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently been named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The letter, purportedly from a fellow African-American, called the leader of the civil rights movement "a fraud and an evil, vicious one at that."

It threatened that his church allies would "know you for what you are an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done."

This piece of disinformation was sent to King anonymously. The letter, plus audio evidence of King's extramarital affairs, posed a crisis of confidence for the charismatic clergyman.

Still, King went to Oslo in December 1964 to receive the Nobel award for his work to win voting rights, fair housing and equal treatment particularly for African-Americans who, in many parts of the United States, were living under Jim Crow laws.

The letter, written by William C. Sullivan, who hoped to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was part of the FBI's long campaign against King, says Maxwell in "F.B. Eyes," a history of how domestic agents analyzed African-American novels, poems and other writings in order to anticipate unrest.

Sullivan's fraudulent letter was only one of many acts by the national agency in its decades-long drive to confuse, suppress and blunt the works of black American writers, intellectuals and artists of such movements as the Harlem Renaissance.

Hoover was furious that King was to be honored with a Nobel. As a member of the FBI and its predecessor security agency since 1919, Hoover had long nurtured a deep distrust of outspoken black American leaders, whether they be canny intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois or writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

He also took a strong, negative interest in the black boxing champion, Jack Johnson, who dated white women and was one of Hoover's targets for abuse.

Maxwell, associate professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University, took his title from a poem by Wright. Here's the first verse from "The FB Eye Blues," written in 1949: "That old FB eye/Tied a bell to my bed stall/Said old FB eye/ Tied a bell to my bed stall/Each time I love my baby, gover'ment knows it all."

What motivated Hoover? What was he, the nation's top cop until the early 1970s, afraid of when it came to the African-American elite? …

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