The flawed greatness of Martin Luther King Jr

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC  Questioning the content of the character of Martin Luther King Jr seems as mean-minded as questioning the anti-totalitarian credentials of George Orwell.

Sadly, an historian’s deep dive into MLK’s past has uncovered an incident which has cast a shadow over his reputation.

David Garrow, who won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the great African-American civil rights leader, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, found FBI surveillance notes amongst freshly released government documents.

The agents, who had bugged King’s telephones and hotel rooms, report mistresses, prostitutes, orgies, a love child, drunkenness, and crude speech about women. Worst of all, claims Garrow, “in a Washington hotel room ... a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his ‘parishioners’, while King ‘looked on, laughed and offered advice’”.

It was like discovering payslips for George Orwell’s spying expenses in the archives of the KGB. King suddenly became a #MeToo sexual predator to rival Harvey Weinstein.

The explosive allegations raise two questions: how credible are the allegations and do they matter?

Garrow resorted to publishing his article in Standpoint, a small British conservative magazine, because he had failed to place it with the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other papers. They all felt that the evidence was too weak to justify the risk of defaming King and his legacy, as well as blackening the reputations of his associates and several women. Sixty years after the alleged events, no one is alive to corroborate them.

“We should not become historical peeping Toms by trafficking in what amounts to rumor and innuendo,” argued black feminist historian Barbara Ransby, of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the New York Times.

This is not a standard which the media has observed in dealing with lurid stories about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy or even Harvey Weinstein’s antics, but she has a point.

The FBI was keeping track of King because he was a disruptive civil rights agitator and because it suspected that he was a Communist or a tool of the Communists. It was a sad episode in American history. It was so ready to smear him that it sent him an anonymous letter together with an incriminating tape suggesting that he commit suicide.

The problem for Garrow is that the incriminating tapes and transcripts have been sealed until 2027. He has only had access to cryptic annotations made by FBI agents. He believes that they are a fair and accurate summary of King’s actions and conversations -- but Professor Ransby rejects this:

The F.B.I. as a sole source for accurate historical evidence of this nature is highly problematic. In my own research on two individuals who were subjects of F.B.I. surveillance in the 1950s and ’60s, I found F.B.I. files enormously unreliable, as many of my colleagues do. There were errors, incoherent scribblings, illegible notes, typos and inaudible tapes throughout. Informants are usually very vulnerable or highly incentivized subjects, and therefore their accounts are fraught. 

So there is good reason to treat these revelations with great suspicion.

But the curious thing is that very little of what Garrow published in Standpoint is new. King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ralph Abernathy, had already described his friend’s marital infidelities in his 1989 autobiography. And one of the central themes of Garrow’s biography, Bearing the Cross, also published in 1989, was the inner conflict between King’s high ideals and his ''compulsive sexual athleticism''.

For 30 years, King’s failings have been not been secret. They were amply documented. And ignored. 

In 2003 the opening words of King's "I Have a Dream" speech were etched on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In 2011 President Barack Obama dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. Everyone knew and nobody cared. And perhaps that's for the best. As Obama said “It is precisely because Dr. King was a man of flesh and blood and not a figure of stone that he inspires us so.”

So what makes Garrow’s revelation noteworthy?

Just one thing: the allegation that he colluded in a rape. This is bizarrely inconsistent. Everybody was fine with ''compulsive sexual athleticism''. But, in the era of #MeToo, an unverifiable allegation of rape is unforgiveable.

One expert even says that he is not going to wait for confirmation of the FBI’s snooping in 2027; he has already halted his two scholarly projects on King.

“What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments? King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.”

This is absurd. Fortunately, Americans are going to have more sense than this. King will continue to be revered because of his towering virtues. He is one of the greatest figures of 20th Century American history –a civil rights activist, an inspiring African-American leader, an orator of unsurpassed eloquence, a Nobel Prize laureate. As Abernathy told his critics, King was a man who achieved greatness despite his “human frailties”. That’s an important message for black youths in ghettos – and everyone else.  

Pharisaical horror at his inconsistencies says more about post-Christian #MeToo notions than about King. For Christians, sins are inexcusable but forgiveable. For post-Christians, nothing is forgiveable. Nothing can mitigate offences; nothing can counterbalance the weight of human weakness; nothing can palliate ignorance or passion. The dour, joyless, thin-lipped, black-suited citizens of Massachusetts Bay Colony have been out-Puritaned by the vengeful furies of #MeToo. 

What King did to women -- allegedly did -- is appalling. But the shadows of the valleys highlight the light on the hilltops of his achievements. Rather than expunge him from children’s history lessons, we should teach them that even flawed and imperfect men and women can serve humanity.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet   


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