Two pieces on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the new allegations against him

June 4, 2019 • 10:45 am

It is curious that the accusations of sexual misconduct committed by Martin Luther King, Jr., recently published in Standpoint by his biographer, the distinguished civil rights historian David Garrow, have largely been ignored by the mainstream press. I think it’s because the press doesn’t know how to respond to accusations of rape-enabling and abuse of women by someone as distinguished as Dr. King—someone who did more than anyone else to bring civil rights to African Americans in the last century. Given the cognitive dissonance among the Authoritarian Left when two of their values collide (another example is feminism vs. Islamic misogyny), I wondered if King would be given more of a pass than others because of his accomplishments. Although the accusations against King are still under legal seal until 2027, many have been deemed guilty by allegations as unsubstantiated as those against Dr. King.

My own take so far is to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, hoping I’m around when the evidence is unsealed, and to recognize that earlier evidence already showed King to be a serial philanderer. He was imperfect—maybe criminally so—but his legacy, his actions, and his writings still mark him as one of the most accomplished figures in American history. But so was Thomas Jefferson, who held slaves. Even now, at my alma mater The College of William and Mary, Jefferson’s statue is regularly being defaced. Lately we’ve seen the demonization of people like Dr. Seuss as well as Gandhi, whose statues have been taken down in South Africa. Somehow people haven’t yet come to terms with how we regard historical figures who have done bad things by modern lights. But clearly such judgments must balance good versus bad, recognize the complex nature of humans, and should have nothing to do with someone’s race.

The New York Times has finally come to grips with the accusations about King, but only in an op-ed by one person, Barbara Ransby. [Note added in proof: they just published another piece on King that I haven’t yet read.] Ransby is a professor of history, gender and women’s studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” “Eslanda” and “Making All Black Lives Matter.” You can read her piece below:

The piece is not really a defense of King so much as an attack on those who accept, even tentatively, that King might have been a far worse sexual predator than we know. We can rule out many on the Right who seem to glorify in these revelations, as they really don’t like what King did. But Ransby, while properly pointing out that the evidence isn’t dispositive, attacks the FBI for its attempt to depose and terrorize King (true, but it’s still possible that the transcripts are right), and even Garrow for publishing unverified information. She gives more credibility to the testimony of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, as they were recounting their own stories rather than digging out someone else’s, as did Garrow.  And Garrow, who has impeccable credentials and no a priori animus against King, is criticized for wanting public attention,  for seeming to “want his own Me first spotlight by getting out in front of an unsubstantiated story” by telling the stories of women who can’t tell the stories themselves. That’s a bit unfair: many of the women are dead and even Garrow thinks that we need to wait before revising our judgment of King as a man (see below). Her subheading implies that Garrow is a “historical peeping Tom”.

Finally, Ransby brings in “resurgent white nationalism” to buttress King’s historical legacy, which stands untarnished to all rational people, and the racist way in which King’s “black sexuality” was described by the FBI. Probably true, but again irrelevant to the questions about his character. After all, it was King who talked about judging a man by “the content of his character.”

To be fair, Ransby does say, and I agree, that we need to wait until 2027 before we begin the painful process of evaluation:

If in 2027 when the full F.B.I. tapes are released there is credible and corroborated evidence that a sexual assault occurred and Dr. King was somehow involved, we will have to confront that relevant and reprehensible information head-on. But we are not there.

Indeed, but Ransby’s piece still looks a bit tendentious. King’s historical accomplishments are secure, though the man was imperfect and may have even been a malefactor, but neither she nor Garrow know the truth, and there’s no need to discredit Garrow and the FBI (which of course did do pretty awful things) in advance of the tapes’ release.

Politico has what I see as the most reasoned take about this whole issue, more so than Ransby’s piece (click on screenshot):

An excerpt of their piece (my emphasis):

The reports are full of erotic details and include revealing handwritten marginalia. But to the uninitiated, the written reports that Garrow cites are hard to interpret. They can’t be checked against the original surveillance tapes, which remain sealed, according to a judge’s order, until 2027. It’s hard to tell from a glance who precisely authored them, for what purpose they were drafted or what information they’re based on. It is Garrow’s decades of expertise in reviewing and analyzing FBI materials about King that gives these startling revelations their weight. Garrow has explained that while not all FBI claims are to be believed, these sorts of summaries of surveillance intercepts are unlikely to have been fabricated or manipulated.

And Garrow’s overall assessment is measured. Nowhere does he renounce the esteem for King that can be seen in his three important books on the minister’s life. Rather, he proposes that the possibility King tolerated or abetted a rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.” Garrow concludes with a call to preserve the recordings on which the FBI reports are based, so that we can learn more when they’re scheduled to be opened eight years from now.

. . .the Washington Post’s “Retropolis” blog, which declares Garrow’s article to be “irresponsible.” The thrust of the article is to insinuate that the FBI reports aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and so Garrow shouldn’t have published them. But while the Post piece quotes some respected historians (including friends of mine) rightly noting that the FBI documents may not be entirely reliable—not least because of Hoover’s vendetta against King—it avoids the obvious, if painful, corollary that they may well be accurate to a significant degree. We should at least allow the possibility that the accusations are true.

That’s why it’s a mistake to discount Garrow’s article wholesale. Any historian who came across a new cache of documents related to a longstanding area of research would feel compelled to explore it—and, if those materials shed new light on the subject, to publish them.

. . .King’s greatness is such that he has weathered these disclosures. The rape charges are of course graver, but they don’t negate the historic achievements for which he has long been properly celebrated.

Even if the ugliest charges against King are bolstered by additional evidence, that doesn’t mean we should talk about renaming Martin Luther King Day, tearing down statues of him, or stripping him of his Nobel Prize. In recent years, we’ve had altogether too much wrecking-ball history—history that takes public or private flaws or failings as reason to cast extraordinary men and women out of our political or artistic pantheons. Historians know that even the most admirable figures from our past were flawed, mortal beings—bad parents or bad spouses, capable of violence or cruelty, beholden to sexist or racist ideas, venal or megalomaniac, dishonest or predatory. Awareness of these qualities doesn’t mean despising figures once held up as heroes. Rather, it gives us a more complete and nuanced picture of the people who shaped our world.

Garrow acted responsibly, I think. He put the tentative evidence out there, alerting historians to what he found and what needs to be examined in eight years. He is a reporter, neither an accuser nor a jury.

Until we know the real evidence, we should neither discount nor accept wholesale Garrow’s claims. And we should balance King’s private behavior against his accomplishments as a leader. But that standard should go for everyone, including Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Gandhi.

h/t: cesar

23 thoughts on “Two pieces on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the new allegations against him

  1. “Dr. King—someone who did more than anyone else to bring civil rights to African Americans in the last century.”

    To me, this is how he will and should be remembered. I think this can be done while confronting other relevant and even reprehensible information.

    After all, the FBI HQ is called the Hoover building. Hoover has a well-documented record of abuse of his position that affected many people. He wanted MLK to kill himself. The historical judgement of Hoover has been relatively kind, if you asked me. It can be so for MLK.

  2. Statue of Gandhi was removed from the University of Ghana campus.
    In South Africa, a statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town campus.
    Seems that we in Africa wish to rewrite history.

  3. I’m not to sure any of us or may very few of us are able to properly look at these issues and come to the absolute correct conclusion. We are all different with different attitudes and ideas on these things.

    Think about the fact that the guy voted into the office of president just a short time ago told all of us, first hand, what his attitude toward women was and still, he was voted in.

    I also think we need to not attempt to compare others to the situation with MLK whatever he did or is found out about his past. Thomas Jefferson is surely not the comparison because his problems and actions took place 250 years ago and he lived in a different society than MLK for sure. Kings complete attitude toward women will eventually be known but he did not create his vision of women 200 years ago. He was a man of g*d I believe and that alone must count for something. I am sure he was not raised to get married and then have lots of relations with other women?

    Thomas Jefferson, from the day he was born into a slave society, was surrounded by it every day. The women who took care of him as a baby and as he grew up were slaves. It was almost part of his DNA. If his morals and attitude had not been screwed up, I would have been surprised. So it is very hard for me to hold Jefferson up to our 20th or 21st century ideals.

    1. Consenting adults can do whatever they like.

      Jefferson’s slaves were not consenting adults. So while he may get some indulgence on the grounds that ‘everyone was doing it’, that is far more serious than MLK’s private life. All MLK’s partners were presumably willing and got paid. His wife may have a beef; we the public don’t have any standing to complain.

      The one alleged exception I give about as much credence as ‘weapons of mass destruction’, unless or until solid evidence emerges.


      1. I can see that you understand nothing that I said and do not seem to comprehend the difference between culture and morality. You say that slaves were not consenting adults. What does that have to do with mind of Jefferson and why he had the attitude that he did.

        And what MLK did or did not do with women and how he treated them is whatever it is in today society not 1800. He had Reverend in front of his name. Does disgusting hypocrite mean anything to you or morality? If he were just a regular guy out there running with whores or just screwing around on his wife, who would care.

        1. I understand what you said. I just disagree.

          To my mind keeping slaves is a far greater offence than having sex with consenting partners.

          You may claim that Jefferson gets an exemption because it was normal at the time. I do agree that judging historic figures by today’s standards is a fallacy.

          But then, I think that your condemnation of MLK because his private life offends your morality is equally fallacious.


  4. Since the cat is out of the bag, the court records should be unsealed now. What will that take? If MLK’s reputation has been unjustly smeared, then let the record clear him. If he encouraged a rape, then he needs to be taken off his pedestal.

    1. I don’t think we should make an exception, there are good reasons to keep the records sealed. And, we can hope that the release date will arrive in saner times.

  5. “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

    I think many people in history recognized as great fall into the last category. MLK was certainly a man with many qualities of leadership. MLK never claimed he was without sin. History does not wait for its leaders to be vetted.

  6. How attitudes toward MLK are formed should take into account people like Trump. Trump is president and he has said terrible things about many people and he is alive, unlike Jefferson.

    As a cohesive picture, both MLK and Gandhi have many actions that are noteworthy of being judged heroic and exemplary.

  7. Jerry says: “(W)e should balance King’s private behavior against his accomplishments as a leader. But that standard should go for everyone…”

    Indeed. So let’s apply it to everyone. Including both MLK’s critics and his defenders, for a start.

    Not relevant to what they write? Maybe. But in that case MLK’s alleged sins should not count against his achievements. Everyone is flawed. Some manage to rise above it.

    1. That treatment is correct in most cases. However, if eventually it is discovered that Kings treatment of women was particularly bad or degrading, it becomes very hard to separate from his call for fairness and dignity for African Americans. It is all about the human race.

      1. Agreed; and that makes it all the more important to distinguish the fallible human from the truth of his insights. It is all too easy to say “X is a misogynist arsehole; therefore everything he did, wrote or said is wrong”. It’s all we hear from some of the woke activists at what pass for universities these days. It’s a non sequitur; and it needs to be called out.

  8. I’m with you on the wait-and-see approach. The only newly surfaced allegation that would warrant a substantial reevaluation of Dr. King’s legacy is that he abetted a forcible sexual encounter. The only evidence to support that allegation so far, as I understand it, is an FBI memorandum, with anonymous marginalia, summarizing a surreptitiously recorded audio tape (or a transcript of such a tape) written by an agent who had purportedly listened to the tape (or read the transcript) depicting the alleged incident. There seems to me to be several potential sources of error regarding such allegations.

    Accordingly, any such reevaluation will have to await the the unsealing of the underlying evidence in 2027. Nevertheless, if that allegation is borne out by the underlying evidence, let chips fall where they may, though the heavens may fall (if I may mash up my tropes).

    The remaining allegations, as I understand them, are merely that King engaged in private libertine sexual peccadilloes among consenting adults and that he scored some dosh for the cause from some pinkos. Such allegations merit no historical revisionism, though shocking to the straights and squares, to the philistines and bourgeoisie, they may be.

    1. Wait and see it is. However, on the issue of that person in the white house the waiting is way pass due. I was watching several people, much smarter than I, on television saying it is time to go to impeachment hearings now. They could go without the Mueller report, just on the obstruction of congress he is doing at this time. They must and if they do not take action it is likely our current form of government will be greatly changed if not ruined.

  9. “The remaining allegations, as I understand them, are merely that King engaged in private libertine sexual peccadilloes among consenting adults and that he scored some dosh for the cause from some pinkos. Such allegations merit no historical revisionism, though shocking to the straights and squares, to the philistines and bourgeoisie, they may be.”

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    The *only* actual crime of which he is accused is third-hand from an agency which is known to have wished to bring him down. About as credible as Weekly World News.


    1. I’m willing to believe that he was a hypocrite. Growing up is realising that to be a human-being is to be a hypocrite, at least to some degree.

      OTOH hand I’m pretty sceptical about the validity of a third-hand report, which was eventually passed on by an organisation that tried to _trick MLK into committing suicide._

      If the allegations go further than his being a cheat and a religious hypocrite, if they in fact go into allegations that he was…comfortable with rape, I guess you’d call it…then I’d also expect to hear a lot more than just the one report, filtered through an FBI that actively sought to destroy him. That kind of behaviour doesn’t tend to be a one-off. It was the sixties of course, and women were more reluctant to come forward, but then the FBI was actively dredging the seabed for bad stories about him too.

      I’d like to see more information released. If it turns out to be true then I’d readjust my beliefs about him accordingly, but at the moment it’s a flimsy pretext upon which to label him anything more than a hypocrite and a philanderer.
      And of course it’s utterly irrelevant w/r/t the validity of civil rights. That is a philosophical, moral argument that stands on its own and is iron-clad.

  10. “And we should balance King’s private behavior against his accomplishments as a leader.”

    In my view, one thing doesn’t have much to do with the other. The public image isn’t the real person, it represents some small part of their life as an achievement. The achievements become prototypical for the person, not all the other things they also did.

    People of history are of course an interest for historians (and interested lay people), but outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything at all, unless historians can show how a re-interpretation of their character affects the public achievements. A clear-cut case would be if it came out that a person previously thought to be a genius was found stealing all their ideas from an hiherto unknown person around them.

    1. Yes, I agree with your point although I’d phrase it slightly differently:

      His reputation as a person has a lot to do with the moral validity of his civil rights work…but the moral validity of his civil rights work has _nothing_ to do with his reputation as a person.

  11. I find it unbelievably curious how so many can call for a mitigation of any harsh judgements on MLK the man, in the light of the accomplishments achieved by MLK…. when we here in the scientific community have made no attempt to apply any such balance to the case of Lawrence Krauss, who was “one of our own”. I do believe that virtue signalling lies at the heart of this discrepancy and that a bit of soul-searching is well in order here.

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