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.