What are you prepared to believe about the private life of Martin Luther King Jr.?
Throughout his career leading the civil rights movement, he was the target of extensive FBI surveillance, which detailed excessive drinking and extramarital sexual relationships, behavior that has been confirmed by historians.
But would you believe that King was an accessory to rape?
That is the explosive and highly controversial contention of the civil rights icon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, David Garrow, writing in the conservative British journal Standpoint.
The evidence consists of an anonymous scribbled note on typed summaries that the FBI produced of its surveillance of King and his associates at a hotel in Washington. The government bugged King’s hotel rooms, and on this occasion, January 5, 1964, according to agents, a minister associated with King brought several women parishioners to the room to meet with King and others. Talk turned to sex, and when one woman protested, according to the summary, the minister “forcibly raped her.”
The hand-written note, Garrow reported, adds that King “looked on, laughed and offered advice” as the rape occurred.
What should we make of this?
First, it must be said that Garrow has thrown a historical grenade and walked off.
Evidence of this sort cannot be accepted without corroboration. Tapes supposedly exist of the episode summarized in the document he cites, but it will take until January 31, 2027 to gain access to archived and court-sealed tape recordings.
Nearly eight years is too long to wait for the resolution of what some have gleefully billed as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s #MeToo reckoning. It’s patently unfair.
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It needs corroboration because, as Garrow himself has documented, it comes from an organization deeply invested in undermining King.
Initially, the FBI’s rationale for tapping King’s phones and bugging his residence and hotel rooms was to investigate King’s ties to Communists. But later J. Edgar Hoover seemed to all too pleased to discover the tarnish on the ministerial image of King.
Recall that FBI leadership once labeled King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.”
There’s also the historical fact that white supremacists have always been obsessed with black men’s sexuality — a thread that goes back to slavery. What better way to dehumanize than to claim that black men were sexually dangerous, so much so that they deserved to be kept in chains.
Garrow, the chronicler of all things King, came upon the notes while combing through recently released documents, and understandably he wanted the new material shared. He shopped his piece around to many major media outlets but got the cold shoulder. Many rightly hesitated, knowing that the notations couldn’t be substantiated without access to the recordings. It’s even possible that no recording exists to correspond with the written note.
If the allegation proves true, this act would have crossed a line far too evil to be dismissed as the chauvinism of the time. What we’ve already learned about King’s relationships with and attitudes toward women has been hard enough to square with other qualities of this martyr.
The African American women who contributed mightily to the civil rights movement deserved better than this.
Let’s let one of those unsung women have the last say, for now.
Dorothy Cotton was one of two women who served on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s executive staff. Cotton, who died in 2018, was interviewed about King’s chauvinistic attitudes, as recounted in writings by the late theologian James H. Cone.
Cotton’s reply: “My hope and dream — and maybe it’s a fantasy — but it is that he would have seen that women are an oppressed class. I don’t know how he could have preached what he preached and could not have seen that, too, but it might have been a painful lesson he had to learn. But I think he would have learned it.”