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Jackie Kennedy on Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Jackie Kennedy on Martin Luther King, Jr.

ABC News

By RICK KLEIN (@rickklein)

Sept. 8, 2011


Speaking in the months after her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy was so upset with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that she told a friend and interviewer that she could barely look at images of him.

"I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible," Mrs. Kennedy said, as part of an oral history series of interviews released this month.

The widowed first lady soured on King as a result of secret wiretaps arranged by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had told President Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in town for the March on Washington, and told Robert Kennedy that King had made derogatory comments during the president's funeral, Mrs. Kennedy recalled.

But as for what was actually said by King and his circle, history remains uncertain. The original surveillance tapes involving King have never been released publicly, and are under seal by court order until 2027.

Rep. John Lewis, legendary civil rights leader and friend of King, told ABC News that he believes Hoover concocted damaging material about King to give to the Kennedys because "he wanted to destroy the man."

"He did everything possible to make Dr. King look like somebody from another planet," said Lewis, D-Georgia. "I cannot believe that Dr. King ever said anything in a negative manner about President Kennedy. He admired, he loved … the Kennedy family."

"He was so moved by the speech that President Kennedy had delivered on June 12th, 1963, when he said the question of civil rights was a moral issue," Lewis said.

Mrs. Kennedy said Robert Kennedy told her he had heard FBI wiretaps in which he said that King had made derogatory comments in private about Cardinal Richard Cushing, who delivered President Kennedy's eulogy at his November 1963 funeral.

Mrs. Kennedy says Bobby told her "He made fun of Cardinal Cushing and said that he was drunk at it. And things about they almost dropped the coffin and -- well, I mean Martin Luther King is really a tricky person," Mrs. Kennedy said.

Watch the two-hour Diane Sawyer Special "Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words" Tuesday 13 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

She also said that the president himself told her about surveillance suggesting that King sought to organize a sex party while in town for the March on Washington in August 1963.

"He told me of a tape that the FBI had of Martin Luther King when he was here for the freedom march. And he said this with no bitterness or anything, how he was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean, sort of an orgy in the hotel, and everything," she said.

The comments offer a glimpse of a complex series of relationships that shaped 1960s Washington. Webs of loyalties and ambitions tangled Hoover's FBI, Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, Rev. King's civil rights crusade, and President Kennedy ambitious domestic agenda -- with Jacqueline Kennedy overhearing much of it.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John and Jacqueline, said her mother's comments about King are evidence of the "poisonous" activities Hoover was engaged in, as he ruled the FBI as his private fiefdom.

She said the comments didn't reflect her mother's true feelings about King, pointing out that she was proud to attend his funeral in 1968.

"Obviously J. Edgar Hoover had passed on something that Martin Luther King said about my father's funeral, to Uncle Bobby and to Mommy. And obviously, she was upset about that," Caroline Kennedy told ABC's Diane Sawyer.

"It shows you the poisonous … activities of J. Edgar Hoover, and the idea that this is going on at the highest levels of government is really twisted," Caroline Kennedy said.

"If you asked her what she thought of Martin Luther King overall -- I mean she admired him tremendously," she added.

Hoover's FBI tapped King's telephones from 1963 through 1966, based on the pretext that King was being influenced by Communist interests. Robert Kennedy, at his perch as attorney general, approved of some of the initial surveillance of King's inner circle.

Hoover kept a steady stream of damaging information about King flowing to both Kennedy brothers.

Historian Michael Beschloss said Hoover appears to have been trying to manipulate the Kennedys to turn on King, by sharing tidbits -- like his supposed snickering at JFK's funeral -- that he knew would resonate with Mrs. Kennedy.

"If there was anything that was going to turn her instantly against someone, that was it," Beschloss said. "She was furious at Martin [Luther] King, at what she had heard he had said about her husband's funeral. And so, when she found out about what may or may not have been on these tapes, she was extremely ready to believe that there was some terrible things there."

Mrs. Kennedy's recollections of her husband's feelings toward King were far warmer. She said he went out of his way to emphasize he wouldn't "judge anyone" based on what he was told about the FBI surveillance.

"He said what an incredible speaker he was during that freedom march thing," she recalled.

King met with Kennedy at the White House when he was in Washington for the march, just months before the president's assassination. And his phone call to Coretta Scott King after her husband was sentenced to jail just weeks before the 1960 presidential election was an event some historians credited with boosting black turnout -- possibly handing Kennedy the presidency.

Mrs. Kennedy seemed to reference that call on the tapes, but she didn't finish her thought.

"He acknowledged that having made that call during the campaign got them -- Then he told me of a tape that the FBI had … ," she said.

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