How The FBI Tried To Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech

Martin Dobrow | The Atlantic | June 11, 2014

The untold story of a government plot, a maverick college president, and the most important figure of the civil rights era

...In early 1964, [Martin Luther] King was invited by Springfield President Glenn Olds to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address on June 14. But just days after King accepted the invitation, the FBI tried to get the college to rescind it. The Bureau asked Massachusetts Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a corporator of Springfield College, to lean on Olds to “uninvite” King, based on damning details from the wiretap.

King’s biographers have recorded little about this episode. Neither David Garrow nor Taylor Branch—who both won Pulitzers for books about King—ever mentioned Glenn Olds by name or title. Saltonstall is relegated to a one-sentence footnote in Garrow’s The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., a groundbreaking 1981 book that unmasked the Bureau’s extensive surveillance of the civil rights leader. In the hardcover edition of Branch’s 2006 book, At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume of a towering trilogy about America in the King years that took more than two decades to create, the renowned historian wrote that Saltonstall had “helped block an honorary degree at Springfield College, by spreading the FBI’s clandestine allegations that King was a philandering, subversive fraud.”

There was just one problem with this lively statement. Nobody blocked an honorary degree for Martin Luther King at Springfield College...