BOSTON — They’ve given us a peak into her life inside the White House — and some have created a bit of a stir. In the newly released audio recordings of the late first lady, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, she is heard calling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a “phony” and a “terrible man.”
The tapes, from interviews with historian Arthur Schlesinger, took place in 1964, just months after her husband’s assassination. Jackie Kennedy said she was told the FBI had recordings of King making crass comments about JFK’s funeral involving the archbishop of Boston at the time.
“He made fun of Cardinal Cushing and said that he was drunk,” Onassis says on the tapes. “Things about ‘They almost dropped the coffin.’ I mean, Martin Luther King is really a tricky person.”
For some historical context, Morning Edition’s Bob Oakes spoke with Walter Fluker, Martin Luther King Jr. professor of ethical leadership at Boston University.
King and Kennedy “had an interesting and complicated relationship,” Fluker said.
On the one hand, when King was jailed for several days in Readsville, Ga., “it was the Kennedys who were able to gain his release,” Fluker said.
Political analysts have said that Kennedy’s role in King’s release drove a black vote in the presidential election that may have helped Kennedy beat Richard Nixon. “Especially in the South, where many African-Americans, especially the elite, tended to be Republicans,” Fluker said. “Though King did not endorse him formally, it was a statement about the Kennedys’ rather liberal and supportive attitudes towards civil rights,” Fluker said.
On the other hand, Fluker says, “you cannot talk about the Kennedy relationship (with King), especially during the period the first lady was referring to, without understanding the counterintelligence of J. Edgar Hoover.”
As director of the FBI, Hoover was closely monitoring King’s actions and secretly wiretapped his phone calls. Some of King’s closest confidantes had ties to the Communist Party and Hoover recognized the opportunity to use that affiliation against King, according to Fluker.
Hoover passed alleged information from the wiretaps on to Kennedy and others in his circle, some of which was passed on to Jackie Kennedy and soured her attitude toward King.
In the audio recordings, Jackie Kennedy says her husband told her of a tape the FBI had of King when he was in Washington for the Freedom March — “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.”
It is at that point in the interview that Jackie Kennedy calls King a “phony.”
This, to Fluker, is ironic, and evidence of Hoover’s mastery in “spinning webs.”
“While the first lady is channeling what her husband had shared with her via J. Edgar Hoover,” Fluker said, “at the same time, Hoover is warning President Kennedy of (Kennedy’s) alleged entanglement with a number of sexual liaisons and mistresses, including an association with an Eastern European mistress — alleged mistress.”
Ultimately, Fluker says, Jackie Kennedy’s comments must be considered in the context of the time.
“King in many respects was a threat to not just the political leadership of the United States of America,” he said. “King actually broke the mold in many respects because he dared to say in public what many were not able to say … he had the audacity to speak to situations that I think were deeply troubling — to even white liberals.”