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What Are We Supposed to Think of Martin Luther King Jr. Now?

May 30, 2019
What Are We Supposed to Think of Martin Luther King Jr. Now?
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The British newsmagazine Standpoint hit newsstands in England today featuring an article titled “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King” with the subtitle “Newly revealed documents portray the great civil rights leader as a sexual libertine who ‘laughed’ as a forcible rape took place.” The article is written by historian David J. Garrow, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The story of how the article came to be is striking. Garrow claims to have learned of new information after hearing that King-related materials had been “dumped” on the National Archives website.

Garrow claims that as he went through these materials what he found were never-before-seen documents from FBI files and surveillance summaries, that he writes “silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore website.” According to his account, many of these came from tens of thousands of government documents from congressional investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies. They are among over 54,000 web links that led to multi-document PDFs, that took him many weeks to go through.

According to an editorial in the same issue, Garrow came to publish this extraordinary piece at Standpoint after it had been accepted by, and then killed at, the Guardian and subsequently rejected by the Atlantic.

Those in the civil rights movement and close to it knew of King’s reputation as a womanizer who cheated on his wife regularly. They thought, as Garrow himself told the U.K. newspaper, the Sunday Times, that he had perhaps about 10 or 12 other women—not the 40 to 45 alleged in the newly discovered FBI files. The charges are so serious and troubling that Garrow reached the conclusion that King’s indifference to, or approval of, a rape he witnessed and encouraged, “poses so fundamental a challenge to the historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.”

Here is a rough summation of Garrow’s new findings:

  1. King had scores of extramarital affairs. When his wife complained that he was hardly ever home, he advised her, the FBI said, to “go out and have some sexual affairs of her own.”
  2. The FBI bugged the various hotel rooms he was booked to stay in as he traveled the country, recording everything that took place. Sometimes they were in the room next door to King’s, as was the case in the Willard Hotel when King stayed there in 1964.
  3. King used his position as the pastor of his church to pick out women from his own parish to sleep with, and pressure them into going along.
  4. King witnessed and egged on the rape of a parishioner by his friend Logan Kearse, pastor of a Baltimore Baptist church.
  5. King may well have had a daughter from his serious relationship with Dolores Evans, a Los Angeles girlfriend. He is alleged to have regularly paid Evans for child support, although he never acknowledged being father of her baby. Evans is alive, as is the daughter who might have been sired by King, Dr. Chrystal Evans-Bowman. Neither have talked to the press, despite many requests for an interview.

There is another aspect of the revelations that do not relate to King’s sexual life and which are very important. After J. Edgar Hoover spoke to Robert F. Kennedy, King was advised to break his contact with Stanley Levison, a man who advised King, gave his movement money, and was a secret member of the American Communist Party. The history of the civil rights movement has always assumed that King took this advice to heart.

The new documents suggest, however, that King secretly both kept up his contact with Levison and continued to take large amounts of money from him. These funds came essentially from the CPUSA, and thus from the Soviet Union. From 1957 through 1962, Levison gave what Garrow calls “the astonishing amounts” of a total of $76,500; the equivalent of $650,000 today. Levison was in charge of handling all CPUSA funds, including those secretly coming from the Soviet Union, which helped finance the American Communist Party. At a time when segregationist Mississippi Senator James Eastland was accusing the civil rights movement of being run by Communists, such knowledge, had it come out, could have had damaging effects on it.

As a historian who wrote the first major biography of King and a separate book The FBI and Martin Luther King,Jr., Garrow’s new revelations must be taken seriously. His article appears in a distinguished British newspaper, not a Murdoch British rag or a tabloid such as our country’s National Enquirer.

Undoubtedly, people like Roy Moore, Richard Spencer, David Duke, and various alt-right hangers-on will revel in this news and argue that it demolishes Martin Luther King Jr.’s standing as an American hero.

That would be the wrong conclusion to take.

King was a man who risked his own life by practicing non-violence and who publicly rejected the two primary alternatives to the civil rights movement: black nationalism and racial separatism. He rejected the use of guns in the fight against the oppressors, especially the police. Because of this, the more radical groups were not fond of King and called him the Uncle Tom of the movement.

Let me not mince words. King’s behavior toward women should not be buried or excused. They should be condemned.

But does acknowledging these truths mean that we can no longer recognize King’s accomplishments as a civil rights leader? Does it mean we have to ignore what he said in his powerful sermons and writings? Does it diminish his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? It was there that King wrote that citizens had “not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” and at the same time “to disobey unjust laws.”

Remember, King led an entire community to risk everything on behalf of freedom, fighting off Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses as they were unleashed on unarmed citizens protesting for their rights as American citizens.

Our leaders are human. King was deeply flawed in his view of women and his sexual proclivities. It is obvious, reading Garrow’s quotation from King’s sermon on March 3, 1968, that he was alluding to himself when he said “There is a schizophrenia . . . going on in all of us. There are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us.” God, King said, “does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”

The word “mistake” does not begin to cover King’s behavior toward women. But King is yet another reminder that good men can do bad things, and even bad men can sometimes accomplish great goods. How do we balance those ledgers in a final accounting? It’s hard. It’s messy. And there are no neat or obvious answers.

Some thought Garrow should keep his discoveries under wraps, but it is the job of the historian to tell the truth. This is especially true for a historian who has already devoted a good chunk of his career to chronicling the man’s life. It would not be too much to say that Garrow had almost a unique duty to write this piece.

It is unfortunate that the racists among us will cheer this news. But that is not an excuse to keep the truth hidden.

If Garrow is right that a “profoundly painful historical reckoning and reconsideration” is upon us, then so be it. We are better off confronting the truth than living with a comfortable lie.

Ron Radosh

Ronald Radosh is a professor emeritus of history at CUNY, and the author and co-author of many books, including A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (with Allis Radosh) and Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Twitter: @RonRadosh.