Along with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my heroes. Both men, using their labor, their writing, their dedication, and especially their devotion to nonviolent civil disobedience, effected enormous social change. Gandhi helped get the British to “quit India”; King helped lead the civil rights struggles of the sixties that ended legal segregation. (King was of course influenced by Gandhi.)
And yes, both men were imperfect. Gandhi had some bizarre ideas about sex, neglected his wife, and thought India could support itself from the handloom industry. We all know of King’s marital infidelities, which were taped by the nefarious J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, with the recordings sent to King’s wife Coretta Scott King.
But not until now has the full extent of King’s serial infidelities become clear, and—far worse—his usage of woman as sexual objects and, worst of all, at least one case of rape which he egged on. Four days ago the Times of London published excerpts of an upcoming article by King’s biographer, but I haven’t read the article below because it’s behind a paywall.
The Times piece presages an article by David Garrow, who is far from being a detractor of King. Garrow is a distinguished historian of both King and the civil rights movement, and here are his bona fides from Wikipedia:
He wrote the book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He also wrote Liberty and Sexuality (1994), a history of the legal struggles over abortion and reproductive rights in the U.S. prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (2017), and other works.
Garrow writes frequently on the history of the United States Supreme Court and the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and regularly contributes articles on these subjects to non-academic publications including The New York Times, The Nation, The Financial Times, and The New Republic.
Garrow was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He graduated magna cum laude from Wesleyan University in 1975 before receiving his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1981.
Garrow served as a senior adviser for Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning PBS television history of the Civil Rights Movement covering the years 1954–1965. He has taught at Duke University (Instructor of History; 1978–1979), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Assistant Professor of History; 1980–1984), the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center (Associate and full Professor of History; 1984–1991), The Cooper Union (Visiting Distinguished Professor of History; 1992–1993), the College of William and Mary (James Pinckney Harrison Visiting Professor of History; 1994–1995), American University (Distinguished Historian in Residence; 1995–1996) and the Emory University School of Law (Presidential Distinguished Professor; 1997–2005). From 2005 to 2011, Garrow was a senior research fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. From 2011 until 2018 he served as Professor of Law and History and John E. Murray Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
I read Bearing the Cross many years ago, and loved it; it well deserved the Pulitzer, and it, too, was no hit job on King. It did, as I recall, mention King’s infidelities, but we knew of them already, and they seemed limited, appearing to be a form of consensual adulterous sex that, while casting him as a bit of a hypocrite, didn’t seem to greatly tarnish his image as a civil rights leader.
But Garrow has now spent many hours listening to newly released FBI tapes and documents bearing on King’s life, and has a very dark tale to tell. Rod Dreher published some excerpts in The American Conservative last week (click on screenshot below), but I wanted to hold off until Garrow’s own article came out. You can read Dreher’s excerpts by clicking on the screenshot below, but there’s no substitute for the Standpoint piece below that, which was apparently rejected by several venues. As the American Spectator notes:
The UK’s Guardian commissioned David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King, to write an article detailing his shocking discoveries about the civil rights leader’s behind-closed-doors behavior, before pulling out with a kill fee. “Garrow had similar experiences with the Atlantic magazine and with the Washington Post — both of which he had written for before,” Michael Mosbacher writes at Standpoint, which publishes the controversial article on Thursday. “Conservative magazines in the US also felt the story was too risky to run. The same response came from a web magazine whose raison d’être is to fight for free speech. When Standpoint decided to publish it, the longest essay we have ever run, I approached a prominent British historian to write an article putting the revelations into context. The response: ‘No way! I’ll try to think of someone else who has the guts to drink from that particular poisoned chalice.’”
How can such a story be too risky to run in venues that wrote piece after piece about Harvey Weinstein? Well, we know: King is an American hero. But he misused his power just as Harvey Weinstein did. At a time when the personal lives of historical figures are being reassessed, King seemed untouchable, and shame on The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post for not running this story: a story put together by King’s distinguished biographer.
Well, Garrow’s article was published only three hours ago in the UK magazine Standpoint, which is free online (click on screenshot):
It’s horrible—King’s behavior, that is. I will give only a few excerpts:
Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice”. The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.
The FBI, of course, loved this stuff, and they come off as nefarious and disgusting. But we knew that:
The FBI documents also reveal how its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, authorised top Bureau officials to send Dr King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.
The complete transcripts and surviving recordings are not due to be released until 2027 but when they are made fully available a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable.
This information comes from transmitters planted in King’s hotel rooms by the FBI:
Staying in one of the two targeted rooms was King’s friend Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist Church and, like King, the holder of a PhD from the Boston University School of Theology. Kearse “had brought to Washington several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”, a newly-released summary document from Sullivan’s personal file on King relates, and Kearse invited King and his friends to come and meet the women. “The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,” Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.
And shades of Donald Trump:
At the Willard Hotel, King and his friends’ activities resumed the following evening as approximately 12 individuals “participated in a sex orgy” which the prudish Sullivan felt included “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’.” Sometime later, in language that would reflect just how narrow Sullivan’s mindset was, “King announced that he preferred to perform unnatural acts on women and that he had started the ‘International Association for the Advancement of Pussy Eaters’.” Anyone familiar with King’s often-bawdy sense of humour would not doubt that quotation.
There is intimation of tax fraud, and evidence of prostitution. This is the last excerpt I can put up because reading them almost makes me weep. And believe me, there are a lot more such stories.
[FBI] Agent William H. Been had heard rumours that King had patronised a local prostitute and decided that given King’s “position as a God-fearing man of the cloth . . . perhaps a casual inquiry made to the prostitute in question might shed an interesting side light to King’s extra-curricular activities”. At 3 a.m. on May 16 Been met Gail LaRue, a married 28-year-old who had left four children from a prior marriage in Sheridan, Wyoming. Gail explained that at 2 a.m. on April 27, a hotel bellman had asked her to go to the New Frontier Hotel and see the well-known black gospel musician Clara Ward, whose Clara Ward Singers were performing there. In the lobby, Ward handed Gail $100 and told her: “I have a couple of friends in town that would like to meet you and have you take care of them.” Ward said “she was paying Gail . . . because these two men did not believe in paying a girl for her service and for Gail to keep quiet about receiving any money.”
Clara took Gail to the bar at the Sands Hotel and made a call on the house phone. Martin Luther King then appeared in the bar and took both women to his room, where all three began drinking. King phoned one of his colleagues and told him to “get your damned ass down here because I have a beautiful white broad here”. Then “both the Rev King and Clara Ward stripped naked and told Gail to do the same.” With Gail seated in a chair, “King went down on his knees and started nibbling on her right breast, while Clara Ward did the same with her left breast. Gail then stated, ‘I guess the Reverend got tired of that and put his head down between my legs and started nibbling on “that”.’ After a while he got up and told Clara Ward to try some of it, so Clara went down on Gail for a while. Gail stated, ‘I think Clara Ward is queer’.”
Then King had intercourse with Gail while Clara watched. “After what Gail stated seemed like hours, King rolled off and had another drink, then climbed back on for a second go around.” After King paused again, his friend showed up, had a drink, and had intercourse with Gail “while both Clara Ward and the Rev King watched the action from a close-by position”, with Clara sometimes stroking Gail as well. “Gail then stated that she was getting scared as they were pretty drunk and all using filthy language and at last she told Clara Ward she would have to go.” Clara informed King, who “then whispered in Gail’s ear, ‘I would like to try you sometime again if I could get you away from Clara’.”
Here is Garrow’s conclusion:
King’s far-from monogamous lifestyle, like his binge-drinking, may fit albeit uncomfortably within his existing life story, but the suggestion—actually more than one—that he either actively tolerated or personally employed violence against any woman, even while drunk, poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.
There’s no doubt that the FBI comes off badly, with its obsession about King and his sex life and his attempts to get him to kill himself, but we’ve long known that J. Edgar Hoover was a reprehensible human being: an arrogant dictator who wielded absolute power for decades, using it to destroy whom he considered the enemies of America.
The big question, of course, is not whether King was a bad person: he clearly was a horrible person in many ways, even a criminal, but also did enormous good in advancing civil rights. He was a mixed person, but far more mixed than any of us suspected or that any of us would like.
What happens now? Perhaps the Left will treat him differently from, say Harvey Weinstein, because King was such a force for good, but he did exactly what Weinstein did: used his power to seduce, degrade, and even rape women. Garrow is clearly disturbed as well. But will statues of King be taken down now? If not, why not?
What we face is a need to revise our assessment of a man now dead, not of his leadership of the civil rights movement. I weep for his victims, and I weep for his family, now subject to a revelation that he was an odious sexual predator. I cannot see overlooking the latter because of the good he did. If what Garrow wrote is true—and I have every expectation that it is—it will be interesting to see what happens now. Nobody can accuse Garrow of confecting rumors to destroy King’s reputation.
Should Garrow have ignored this story? No, of course not: in fact, he is the best person to tell it. And he has an obligation, as King’s biographer, to paint a full picture of the man. How sad that this picture is now marred in a way most of us never suspected. As someone said, “We live in interesting times,” but in this case I wish the times weren’t so interesting—that King was as upright a man in private as he was in public. But he was human, with all of our flaws, and some of his flaws are both reprehensible and criminal. He’ll never look the same to anyone, including admirers like me.
I am eager to hear readers’ take on this: how do you think we should look at King now?