Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Turn

On Sunday, the London Times published an explosive story about records of FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., that have hitherto been kept secret. They were discovered by David Garrow, a socialist historian whose biography of King titled Bearing the Cross won a Pulitzer prize in 1987. So far, the London Times story has not been picked up by many American news outlets. The New York Times, for example, doesn’t seem to have covered it, nor, as far as I can see, has the Associated Press.

The facts, as related by Garrow, are brutal:

A huge archive of documents recently released from Federal Bureau of Investigation files exposes in detail King’s extramarital sexual activities with dozens of women as he travelled the country campaigning against racial inequality.

To some extent, this is not a surprise. I heard about King’s sexual escapades–group sex and the like–decades ago. But it gets worse.

In another incident said to have been recorded by FBI agents, King is alleged to have “looked on, laughed and offered advice” while a friend who was also a Baptist minister raped a woman described as one of his “parishioners”.

Details of the assault are believed to have been captured on tapes that are currently being held in a vault under court seal at the US National Archives.

I assume the tapes are under court seal because they are raw FBI investigation data, not because of any political desire to protect King.

In an article to be published in the June edition of Standpoint, a British monthly magazine, Garrow writes that the FBI planted miniature transmitters in each of two lamps in rooms booked by King in January 1964 at the Willard hotel, close to the White House in Washington. Eavesdropping agents with “radio receivers and tape recorders” were installed in nearby rooms.

The FBI has long been criticized for its surveillance of King, but it is interesting that the Bureau never used the explosive incidents that allegedly were captured on tape to undermine him. In general, the U.S. government preferred, appropriately, to build up King at the expense of more radical black leaders like Malcolm X.

King was accompanied by a friend, Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist church, who had arrived in Washington with what an FBI summary describes as “several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”. Kearse invited King to meet the women in his room, where they “discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural and unnatural sex acts”.

The FBI document adds: “When one of the women protested that she did not approve, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her” as King watched. At the same hotel the following evening, King and a dozen other individuals “participated in a sex orgy” including what one FBI official described as “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’.”


One white prostitute told the FBI she had been drawn into a threesome with King and a black woman. Visiting Las Vegas in April 1964, King allegedly took the two women to his room at the Sands hotel, then phoned one of his associates and told him to “get your damned ass down here because I have a beautiful white broad here”. The trio had sex before the friend showed up and took his turn while King “watched the action from a close-by position”, according to the FBI account. Then the prostitute said she was “getting scared as they were pretty drunk and using filthy language”. She told an FBI interviewer it was “the worst orgy I’ve ever gone through”.

King reportedly had an illegitimate daughter:

Another FBI summary identifies a long-term Los Angeles-based girlfriend of King who was said to have given birth to a baby girl. “The child resembles King to a great degree and King contributes to the support of this child,” the summary says. Both mother and child are still alive but declined to speak to Garrow.

None of this is particularly surprising in view of what already was known, but King obviously could not survive a “me too” retrospective. On the whole, this is probably for the best. Leftists are determined to show that all of our other heroes had feet of clay, so King–the closest person we have to a secular saint–may as well join them. For what it is worth, however, I think that American heroes like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Ronald Reagan were of far higher moral character than King.

It is worth noting that King’s sexual offenses were not his only major character flaw. He plagiarized his Ph D dissertation, as was officially acknowledged in 1991. How many people know that “Dr.” King obtained his Ph D by copying the work of another Boston University graduate student, more or less word for word, as a comparison I saw years ago showed? Very few, I suspect. King’s plagiarism must have been obvious to the professors who oversaw his work and granted his Ph D. I assume they said nothing because King had a famous and influential father.

Are we now going to rename all of the streets, elementary schools and so on that are named after Martin Luther King, Jr.? Of course not. But let’s not rename the ones that are named for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, etc., either.

History records the deeds of many great men and women. None of them was perfect; all had faults. Most had grievous faults, and all were creatures of their times. The stupidest thing we can do is to use contemporary assumptions and attitudes to relentlessly trash the past–while, of course, remaining oblivious to our own generation’s deficiencies, which will be so obvious to those who follow us.

I would draw a more universal lesson from these revelations about King: no one should idealize someone whom he or she does not know. It doesn’t matter whether it is Gandhi–one of history’s most overrated men, in my opinion, largely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands at a minimum–or Karl Marx, a deeply disgusting human being apart from having been wrong about everything, who contributed to 100 million deaths, or–at an infinitely more benign level–Tiger Woods or Mickey Mantle. We all have faults, and larger-than-life personalities tend to have larger-than-life faults.

If you are going to revere anyone, let it be someone you know: the father who gets up and trudges off to work every day, the mother who cares for you when you are sick, the boss who gave you an opportunity when others weren’t willing to take a chance on you.

Meanwhile, we have to name streets and elementary schools after someone, and we will continue to erect statues and monuments. That doesn’t mean we need to be oblivious to the fact that all men and women who do great deeds are flawed, and many, like Martin Luther King, Jr., fall far below average in important respects.

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