Rethinking King

The following essay by Dr. Jamie McLeod outlines the recent reporting of troubling accounts concerning the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. McLeod helps readers navigate the moral complexity of considering these allegations over against the courageous and honorable legacy of Dr. King’s leadership in the civil rights movement.


Introduction 

On the wall in my office hangs one of my most treasured possessions—a framed portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was a given to me by my advisor and mentor, the Rev. Dr. Stephen G. Ray on the occasion of my graduation from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS) with a Masters degree in Theology. It had been in his office for as long as he had been at LPTS, and there was almost something sacred about its presence.

The time that followed my graduation was a time of transition for both of us. I was in the process of heading to my first doctoral program in Richmond, VA. He was moving to Philadelphia to take a new position at Lutheran Theological Seminary. I was standing in his office the day he was packing it up. When he reached the portrait, he looked at it, then looked at me, picked it up off the shelf where it had sat for all those years and handed it to me. He looked me deeply in the eyes and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” My eyes clouded over with tears, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. From that day, the portrait has hung on a wall somewhere in my life. I can’t look at it without thinking about him and that shared experience.

A couple of Sundays ago I walked into my office following the worship service at my church and took my phone off airplane mode and looked over the various notifications and emails that had come in. One, in particular, caught me eye. “Martin Luther King Jr had 40 affairs and laughed as friend raped woman." In the article it said that Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Garrow, author of the King biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been granted access to a trove of previously unreleased FBI documents from the time in which the Bureau had surveilled King and the SCLC.

In these newly unearthed records, Garrow discovered two things. One, the FBI had (illegally) spied on King and his associates way more than had previously been known. This spying included paid informants, wiretaps, bugged lamps in hotel rooms, and agents following King nearly every moment of the day. And two, that among other things that I will return to in a bit, King allegedly was present in a room with another African American pastor and church women in which, after being told that they were not acting as faithful members of the clergy by one of the women, the other pastor raped her while  King looked on and, again allegedly, laughed and offered the pastor advice.

This fact alone, if it is borne out to be true, demands a fresh accounting of King’s life and legacy. In doing so, however, it is critically important to undertake this investigation being able to maintain some semblance of an ability to balance out all the good that King did in the country without completely expunging him from the pages of history for the moments in his life that were horribly broken. (For the moment, I want to set aside the story of the rape allegation and treat that as a separate incident.) In my own reconsideration of King, I am going to (crudely) divide the elements of King’s adult life into three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. 

 The Good

 Martin Luther King, Jr. is an extraordinarily complex character within the story of the United States. He is the only African American whose life has been determined to have merited a national day of memorial accompanied by Federal offices, schools, and banks being closed. A 30 foot tall bust of him stands in the National Mall adorned with quotes from his books and sermons—another first for African Americans in this country.  In virtually every city in America there is a road that is named in his honor. Outside of sports and entertainment, he remains the chief entrée for White America into Black America—the person of color that most folks know the most about. Moreover, it is through the lens of his life that most of us studied the Civil Rights Movement—the complexity of at least a century and a half of struggle being boiled down to a singular figure whose light burned like a supernova until it was darkened by an assassin’s bullet.

King stepped onto the national stage in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at a time in which Jim and Jane Crow laws and segregation had codified a racial caste system within the nation. Public spaces across the country (though most prevalently in the South) had hard lines of demarcation between “Whites” and Coloreds.” Everything from stores to restaurants, schools to trains, and water fountains all were given distinct ontological categories of existence.

African Americans had, to one degree or another, pushed back against this “separate but equal treatment” since the end of the Civil War and their relative inclusion into the reunited United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was met with the practice of lynching in which (primarily) African Americans were killed in an extrajudicial fashion by (primarily) white mobs. These killings turned into social events for whole communities and on a number of occasions lynchings, carried out mainly on Sundays, actually stopped worship services so that those who were at church could attend the lynching and then return to the church. (On one occasion, at least, the lynching gallows were actually erected in the front yard of a Methodist church).  

King’s arrival in Montgomery put a young and charismatic face on the struggle of African Americans. His oratorical skills and brilliance as a writer made him an extremely easy character in the Civil Rights drama of the late 1950s and early 1960s to cover in the media. It did not take long for him to ascend to the upper echelon of the leaders within the movement. His offering of the “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial is as iconic a moment in American history captured on motion film as exists. To this day, the reverberations of his voice can be heard in a number of advertisements that have taken lines from his rhetoric and used it to promote their products—an indelible reminder that despite our best efforts and intentions, commercialism usually wins.

King also represented the nonviolent form of protest and challenge at a time in which the patience of many in the African American community had boiled over into out and out violence in the streets. Compared with Malcolm X’s “By any means necessary,” Stokley Carmichael’s (later Kwame Ture) embrace of Black Power, or H. Rapp Brown’s (later Jamil Al-Amin) “If America don't come around, we're gonna' burn it down,” King’s belief in redemptive suffering was tame and palatable, by comparison.

The brutal retaliation just off the Edmund Pettus Bridge

The brutal retaliation just off the Edmund Pettus Bridge

The vision of protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge knelt in prayer as fire hoses and dogs and police batons were turned on them was in sharp contrast to the pictures of inner-city protests that arose in the larger urban areas of the country. The actions of Bull Connor and others who sought to tamp down the spirit of resistance and freedom that was coursing through the veins of African Americans in Alabama splayed on every television screen in America did as much to advance the cause of  the Voting Rights Amendment as any singular person. These nonviolent actions were, in large part, spearheaded by Martin Luther King, and he certainly was the chief lightning rod for any blowback directed at the movement.

King also never felt the need to rest on the laurels of previous accomplishments when it came to pursuing the variant causes of justice in the land. For King, seeking true racial conciliation could only ever come when aligned with the addressing of economic disparities within the country and the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam. King understood the degree to which the endemic nature of poverty within the African American community as well as the black cultural drain that arose as a consequence of war dramatically impacted the Black search for whole personhood and dignity within the country.

It was really only after King had commenced the Poor People’s Campaign and spoken out on the Vietnam War that Americans came to despise him, en masse. The reality is that King was often one of the main sources of courage within the Black community throughout the struggle against racial animus and inequality. He faced nearly daily death threats and attempted violence against his family, his friends, and himself and never once publicly wavered from extolling the gospel of Jesus Christ and his faith in a God that always makes a way out of no way. In many ways, King, like his bust at the National Mall, stands alone within the story of the United States and should continued to be remembered and honored, as such.

 The Bad

 As a self-identified Progressive Southern Theologian, with each of those descriptors saying something important about the way in which I understand myself to interact with the world, Martin Luther King has, in many ways, been the most important voice with which I have wrestled over the past 2 decades or so. My copy of his collected writings, Testament to Freedom has been dog-eared and marked up. The spine has been cracked in multiple places and the front and back covers barely hold the pages in place.

As a pastor, I have taught King’s book Strength to Love, and I have either directly or indirectly referenced his sermons/speeches/writings hundreds of times in the pulpit. At the same time, I am also aware of the balancing act that one must do when engaging King and using his words in a positive light. King, like all of us, was a broken human being. This is part of the beauty of the Reformed Tradition and Calvinism, in particular. I can both acknowledge the sinful nature of people and all those times that we get it right, too. This goes all the more so for King whose private failings have been becoming increasingly public with each passing year. To take an honest accounting of such a complex and complicated person requires a willingness to hold on to what is good while fighting against every urge to push certain details under the proverbial rug, never to be considered again. With that in mind, I’d like to think through some of what we know about King’s lesser qualities.

Even as King is rightly remembered as a beacon of strength and courage within the public eye, in private his life, we now know, was not nearly as commendable. Within a few years of his passing, some of the rumors that had surrounded him in his life began to be confirmed. In 1975, a US Senate Select Committee headed up by Idaho Democrat Frank Church investigated the corruption that had overtaken the nation’s two chief intelligence agencies: the FBI and the CIA. In it’s exploration of the FBI during the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, it uncovered records of illegal wiretaps and surveillance against, among others, Martin Luther King.

FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover

FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover

Hoover, who, quite clearly, became obsessed with King and his private life, ordered that King’s hotel rooms be tapped, his phones bugged, and that he be followed each moment of the day. Agents followed King from Montgomery to Atlanta to Las Vegas to Honolulu to Los Angeles to New York City to Washington DC, all in an effort to obtain compromising information about him.

They were exceedingly successful (I’ll come back to this point later). Their surveillance came to a zenith in 1964 when, at the heights of the Civil Rights Movement, with King having ascended to the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, a package was delivered to his residence and addressed to his wife with an audio tape of an extramarital affair and a note suggesting that on Christmas Day, King was going to be exposed as a philanderer unless he killed himself to save his family from the embarrassment. As awful as that tactic had been at the time, there was now physical evidence of King’s infidelities. It would not end there.

King historians from David Garrow to Taylor Branch have done an admirable job at wrestling with the less than savory qualities that King possessed. Garrow notes that in addition to a voracious sexual appetite, he also had an air of chauvinism (the same air that permeated much of the movement at the time) towards all the women in his life. Coretta wanted very much to take a bigger role in the cause only to be rebuffed by King and told that her place was taking care of the house and the kids.

Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King

Coretta later would tell interviewers that if someone said that King spent more than 10 hours a month at their house, they would be lying.  Branch, for his part, focused more on the corrupting power of the SCLC and the near constant presence of extramarital affairs by the staff, writ large. At times, actual bills from prostitutes would be funneled through the business office of the Conference. Issues with women would not be the sole matter that plagued King’s legacy.

In 1991, during an academic inquiry, King was determined to have plagiarized several pages of his doctoral dissertation. As an academic and as someone who has written a dissertation, I found myself equally troubled and disappointed by this turn in King’s story. (As an aside, I am certain I wrote every word of my dissertation except for the copious references to Paul Tillich and Bob Dylan lyrics.)

Moreover, the decision by the committee investigating this action displays the tension in trying to balance the life and legacy of one who ably led an entire movement with his personal moral failings. While they determined that King’s thesis had issues with appropriating other’s work, misquoting or misattributing primary sources, and failing to attribute the use of secondary sources, they decided that it still made enough of a contribution to the greater academic field to garner the award of Doctor of Philosophy. That is, on its face, absurd. There is not another doctoral candidate in this world for whom the same leniency would be offered, nor, should there be. King’s academic fraud would be more than enough to get any other student bounced from their program and we in the academic milieu should sit with that awareness when we are wrestling with the life and person of King.

All these things have been in the ethos of King’s life and, by and large, have risen and fallen in terms of the feelings that King elicits both in academics and the general public. He arose from relative obscurity to become a champion (the only champion that most folks ever study) of the Civil Rights Era and the chief proponent of the doctrine of nonviolence as a means of bringing about societal change.

Throughout the course of his life he and his rhetoric elevated folks out of their seats even as his booming voice shook the nation out of its collective slumber and complacency. At this point there is very little left to debate about the shared cultural memory of King or his contributions to the moral arc of the universe. And then the David Garrow article was released and with it the whole edifice is now poised to collapse under the weight of these new accusations against the revered pastor and nationally honored African American leader.

 The Ugly

In reading through the words of Garrow and his quoting long sections of FBI internal reports regarding the behaviors of Martin Luther King and those who often traveled in his entourage, there is a tendency, at least in myself, to bounce back and forth between horrifying shock and a deep skepticism. I am aware that many of the episodes that Garrow recounts through the records of the FBI confirm in more graphic detail the information already known about King’s sexual exploits outside the bounds of his marriage.

If one takes a step back, the graphic nature of the descriptions really only speak to the realities of sex between two (or more) consenting parties. There is, I believe, an implicit privacy that should come within intimacy in any form. For King that privacy has long been shattered, and this just creates a few more shards. Additionally, the bawdy and graphic language that often arises when some men find themselves together in a confined space can be both troubling and expected. (And, as it turns out, you can use that kind of language and still be elected President of the United States.)

At the same time, there is ever reason to be a little incredulous about anything that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI declared to be so in the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Hoover made it clear that he was not going to find himself bound by any stricture within the law in his pursuit of whomever he had in his crosshairs. Knowing this, there is little reason not to believe that he might have made things up outright in his endeavors. In other words, one should take what Hoover said with a salt block.

Garrow, however, largely accounts for suspicions of these latest accounts by noting that all that he read was produced for internal review and, for the most part, not intended to see the light of day. This, for me, lends credence to the newly unearthed documents. Moreover, it is Garrow’s recounting of the alleged rape that occurred in front of King that he, again allegedly, laughed at, as he offered the rapist advice that makes this new report so much more damning.

In the FBI accounts of the event in question, King and another pastor, Logan Kearse, were in a hotel room that had been bugged by agents when the two started discussing which church members might be right for what the notation declared were “natural and unnatural sex acts.” At that point, one of the women in the group suggested that this was not the manner in which men of the cloth should be acting. Kearse then “immediately and forcibly raped her.”

This single event potentially places the totality of King’s adult life under a much harsher light of scrutiny.

In a comment on the margin of the report, whomever was surveilling the group says that King, for his part, “looked on, laughed, and offered advice.” This, it should go without saying, elevates these new releases, reported on by Garrow, into a new and very dark place in the legacy of Martin Luther King. This single event potentially places the totality of King’s adult life under a much harsher light of scrutiny. Taken as a whole, the witnessing of a sexual assault and the reaction that accompanied it call into question the whole of King’s devotion to nonviolence. As Garrow notes,

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.

Such an undertaking may not be possible in the immediate, but it will happen someday. (More on that in a bit.)

There needs also to be a groundswell of voices demanding a reevaluation of the men of the Civil Rights movement, writ large. Are the handful of examples of male clergy behaving in abhorrent ways surfaced by the newly released trove of FBI records  the exception or the rule? Were their really no clergy in the movement who remained faithful to the bounds of their marital vows as King stated? Was there a more sinister vein of chauvinism and misogyny that existed side-by-side with the efforts made to win racial equality amongst the men of the Civil Rights struggle.

If historians dug deep enough would we find the voices of African American women—victims who had their voices silenced by the power of the men of the movement and the church? These are not insignificant questions. In an era of #metoo and women courageously speaking out, is there not also a place for the specters of those who lived in the past to be allowed to tell their stories as well? Time is of the essence if that is a project that is to be taken seriously. That generation is steadily passing on and with each life extinguished, so, too goes the chance to give women their rightful voice and the opportunity to tell their truth.

 A Reexamination

“What do you do when a great hero is alleged to have done something awful?,” is the question with which historian David Greenberg commences his reconsideration of King. In it, he captures the painful truth that to truly undertake the work that is necessary to arrive at a more honest and authentic conclusion, one is forced to figure out how in the world you find a middle ground between King the Civil Rights icon and King the “rape-watching, laughing, and offering advice on how to better rape” man that has emerged from Garrow’s review of FBI documentation. We live in a time in which the competing forces, when it comes to receiving reports from the media, are either dismissed because such a troubling accusation does not fit in with our previously held belief about the subject or to wholly accept it and begin the process of tearing down the fame and celebrity of yet another well-known person who has had his moral failings excavated for all the world to see.

Neither of these seem tenable options for King. Greenberg, for his part, cautions the tendency in our culture towards what he names as “wrecking-ball” history—an historical interpretation of events that is used to wholly cast one out of their relatively undisturbed place in the past. I agree with Greenberg, to a point. The explicit nature of most of the new findings, if they are indeed accurate, do more to offer a more complete picture of the failings that we already knew that King had. Then there is, of course, the rape and, at least for me, all that goes out the window.

Greenberg writes, “The rape charges are of course graver, but they don’t negate the historic achievements for which he has long been properly celebrated.” That seems a bridge too far. It is one thing to take part in activities between consenting adults. They may be immoral, but they are not illegal. They do not include the nonconsensual penetration of another person, nor, is King’s alleged response and encouragement on nearly the same level with infidelity. King’s reputation has taken a number of hits in the time since his assassination, and he has, for the most part, weathered all of them. This feels fundamentally different.

All this being said, there is a temporary reprieve for anyone who wishes to kick the can down the road and not deal with this new information within the public sphere. The lion share of the King files from the FBI are still not due to be released for another 8 years. This means that beyond the snippets that Garrow has found, there is a whole other set of FBI records that will be released out into the world following the expiration of the court seal that was placed on it 42 years ago.

It is possible for the club of King historians to ignore this single Garrow article and patiently wait until something else comes along to knock it off the top of the pile. That does not, however, mitigate the fact that there is a ticking time bomb that is sitting out there waiting to go off. When that happens, there will not be any place for historians and the public at large to hide to avoid an increasingly likely day of reckoning from which King, the Civil Rights movement, and the nation as a whole are likely to escape unscathed.

 Conclusion 

For the first few years of my ministry, I kept a huge framed poster of Gandhi on the wall of my office with his quote, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I’m sure it looked odd to some for a Christian pastor to have a larger than life picture of a Hindu religious leader on his wall, but I didn’t care. Gandhi was, for me, first and foremost, a holy peacemaker. He represented the best that humanity had to offer, and he would be a great role model for anyone, regardless of their faith tradition, to emulate. Then an article about his sexual practices with young women in his ashram was published. The report tells stories of graphic, unclothed sleeping with what the author of the piece calls, “nubile, naked women.” At that point, Gandhi’s writings and life no longer held the power that they once had for me. The poster of Gandhi that hung in my office all that time was removed and thrown out. I am starting to feel the same emotions toward King. 

The poster still hangs on my wall. For now. It is there as much for the person from whom it came as for the pastor in the portrait. I find myself looking at it one hundred times a day and thinking about just how can I ever find the deep love and appreciation that I have spent the last twenty years cultivating for King again.

To the right of the picture is my critical race theory bookshelf. On it sits the tattered, dog-eared, held together by rubber bands copy of Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches and Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. that I bought when I started seminary and have read over and over again through the years. Next to it, the marked up copy of Strength to Love that I had used to teach King to a class at my church earlier this year. I had spent months in that class extolling his virtue even though there was this other part of his life that was somewhat problematic. It all feels wholly tainted now. 

I have a tendency, when I preach, to link up series of historical figures in rapid succession to show the connection that Christians have to one another and to the history of the faith. It is an oratorical technique that I borrowed (stole) from Otis Moss, III, after seeing him preach at a conference a few years ago. I almost always include King when I do that. A few years ago in a sermon I wrote,

That we tell the world that eventually all things flow into one and that one is the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, of Jesus, of Paul, of Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, and of us.

I had a similar run in a sermon last week. I used Fanny Lou Hamer instead. It felt more appropriate.


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The Rev. Dr. James D. McLeod, Jr., grew up in the town of Lumberton, NC. After attending Clemson University, he studied Divinity and Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and received a PhD from Garrett-Northwestern in 2015. His area of research is the intersection of race, religion, and culture. He has served churches in Missouri, North Carolina, New York, and Alabama. He lives in Trussville, AL, with his wife, Lesley, and three sons.