Historians have known for many years that civil rights icon Martin Luther King had been unfaithful to his wife. But now, David Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his biography of King, has unearthed previously classified FBI documents showing that King was genuinely sexually depraved. From the Times of London (behind subscriber paywall):
A huge archive of documents recently released from Federal Bureau of Investigation files exposes in detail King’s sexual activities with dozens of women as he travelled the country campaigning against racial inequality.
In one memo written after the FBI bugged King’s room at a Washington hotel, there is a startling foreshadowing of the videotape that came to haunt Donald Trump at the lowest moment of his presidential campaign in 2016. That tape caught Trump boasting about meeting beautiful women and being able to “grab ’em by the pussy”.
William Sullivan, assistant director of the FBI, wrote in the 1964 memo that King joked to his friends “he had started the ‘International Association for the Advancement of Pussy-Eaters’.”
In another incident said to have been recorded by FBI agents, King is alleged to have “looked on, laughed and offered advice” while a friend who was also a Baptist minister raped a woman described as one of his “parishioners”.
Details of the assault are believed to have been captured on tapes that are currently being held in a vault under court seal at the US National Archives.
King was accompanied by a friend, Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist church, who had arrived in Washington with what an FBI summary describes as “several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”. Kearse invited King to meet the women in his room, where they “discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural and unnatural sex acts”.
The FBI document adds: “When one of the women protested that she did not approve, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her” as King watched.
At the same hotel the following evening, King and a dozen other individuals “participated in a sex orgy” including what one FBI official described as “acts of degeneracy and depravity.
When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated in this respect. King told her that to perform such an act would ‘help your soul’.”
In his earlier biography, Garrow discussed what he then knew of King’s reckless sexual adventuring, but he treated his subject as a broadly inspirational figure. King was 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. Hundreds of American streets are named in his honour and a national memorial in his name was dedicated in Washington in 2011. “I’ve always been very positive about his selflessness, humility and spiritual gravity,” Garrow said.
Yet the author admitted last week he had no idea of the scale or the ugliness of King’s philandering until he saw the FBI files. “I always thought there were 10-12 other women,” he said. “Not 40-45.” He now believes that in the #MeToo age of revulsion for sexual harassment and assault, evidence of King’s indifference to rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible”.
Garrow’s report will be published on Thursday in the UK magazine Standpoint. Its acting editor, Michael Mosbacher, released on Twitter the editorial explaining why they chose to publish Garrow, who had been refused by The Guardian and others. Mosbacher says that the Guardian paid Garrow — who is, by the way, a man of the left, in fact a member of Democratic Socialists of America — for his work, but then declined to run it. The Atlantic and the Washington Post also refused to run it, the editorial alleges, as did unnamed conservative US magazines. Mosbacher writes:
When the sexual mores of cardinals, presidents, writers, film directors and producers have all been exposed, why is it that questioning the behaviour of a civil rights icon is still beyond the pale? Is not the whole point of the #MeToo movement that no one, regardless of their stature or position, should be above examination of their personal behaviour? Dr. King is the closest the US has to a saint in this secular age, a figure of universal — at least publicly-professed — reverence. Is that not all the more reason for subjecting him to scrutiny, however great his contribution to the creation of a more tolerant society?
He’s right. I wish none of this were true, and perhaps we will learn when the recordings are eventually released that these claims are not true, but I very much doubt it. David Garrow’s reputation as a civil rights movement historian is beyond reproach, and as a Democratic Socialist, Garrow cannot be said to have political motives for trying to discredit King. Given his professional background and political convictions, one imagines that it must have been excruciating for Garrow to have written this. But Garrow is a historian, not a hagiographer. Besides, it’s better to face the painful truth and to deal with it than to remain sheltered by a canopy of lovely lies.
It’s impossible to predict how this news is going to be received in America. We will need to read the entire Garrow essay to understand the scope and detail of what he has found in the archives. I’ll write more about it once the Garrow piece is published, and we can know exactly what we’re dealing with. What a tragedy, though, and an occasion of profound sadness. The greatness of what King achieved in American history cannot be gainsaid. But like so many other great men, he was profoundly flawed. It is immoral to overlook or dismiss the women King exploited and possibly even abused (watching with lascivious relish as a pastor colleague raped a church lady) for the sake of protecting an idol. As Standpoint‘s editor wrote, if we are going to tell the ugly truth about sexually abusive churchmen, then we have no good reason to lie when one of them is named the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Note to readers: if you want to make a racist remark in the comments section, save yourself the trouble. I’m not going to publish it.
UPDATE: I think this reader has it right:
Assuming this is true in more or less the way you have described it, my hope is that something good might come from it. It will be incredibly – and rightly – hard for the US to back away from the celebration of Dr. King, to cancel or rename the Martin Luther King holiday, to rename the Martin Luther King avenues, to demolish the Martin Luther King monument in the Mall, and so on. And perhaps – just perhaps – this might lead to some on the Left rethinking their opposition to other iconic figures of the past. Perhaps people will feel more able to say:
Yes, Martin Luther King was (it now appears) a sexual predator. But he was ALSO a transformational leader whose work led the country to a more just place.
Yes, George Washington was a slave owner. But he was ALSO the leader who brought together the country in its infancy in a way that no one else at the time could.
Yes, Christopher Columbus was a vicious colonial exploiter. But he was ALSO the man whose personal courage connected for all time Europe and the New World.
Yes, Winston Churchill was an imperialist who believed in the superiority of whites. But he was ALSO the person whose opposition to Fascism and anti-Semitism and whose belief in democracy allowed him to lead his country and the world to defeat Fascism.
I hope Dr. King remains celebrated; I also hope that his sexual behavior (again, assuming this story is true) is not forgotten. And in the future, when someone on the Left advocates the abolition of Columbus Day, or the taking down of monuments to Washington or Jefferson or many less well-known figures, I hope that people bring up Dr. King, NOT in the spirit of “Whataboutism”, but in order to remind them that there is no incompatibility between celebrating the achievements of people in the past and acknowledging that those people had – as we all do – major flaws.