A report in a publication called Standpoint makes some startling claims about civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. We should note that this article is in something called Standpoint, rather than, say, The New York Times, because the American mainstream media did not have the courage for it. Indeed, David Garrow, the award-winning biographer who authored the piece based on information found in FBI documents, was not able to find any outlet in the United States willing to publish the details.
Here’s what Garrow has to say:
Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice.” The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.
At the Willard Hotel, King and his friends’ activities resumed the following evening as approximately 12 individuals “participated in a sex orgy” which the prudish [Assistant Director William C. Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division] felt included “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.’”
Garrow’s report includes many details like this. A picture is painted of a binge-drinking alcoholic and serial adulterer who constantly used his position as a supposed man of God and civil rights leader to sexually exploit women. King is also alleged to have physically attacked a number of his sex partners, including one whose clothes he tore off and another who, according to King’s friend Ralph Abernathy, he knocked down onto his bed in a fit of rage.
So, what do we do with this information?
The American media has decided to do nothing with it. I imagine many Americans will follow suit. They will put their fingers in their ears and pretend they never heard it. King will continue to be worshipped to the same extent as before. These points about his life and character will not make it into textbooks and will not be discussed in classrooms. King was canonized before his death, deified upon his death, and there probably isn’t anything that will reverse that process in the year 2019.
But for those who wish to have integrity and moral courage — and who abhor hypocrisy — there seems to be only two options:
1. The new standard applied to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Christopher Columbus and Robert E Lee and any number of other (white) historical figures can also be applied to Martin Luther King Jr. As these men have gone from heroes to villains, and their memorials have been torn down as a result, their murals destroyed, their names removed, their monuments defaced, so the same treatment can be doled out to King. He did not share the same sins as these men, but his sins were no better. Washington and company are blamed for being racists who either participated in or condoned slavery. King, if these very credible reports are true, was a violent misogynist who condoned rape. Would anyone really like to argue that one sin is better than the other? I’d say they are both hideously evil. Indeed, rape and slavery grow from the same tree. The slave owner exploits and dehumanizes his victim. So does the rapist.
It is sad that the achievements of our Founding Fathers come with a giant asterisk because their zeal for freedom and liberty did not apply to non-whites. Well, a similar asterisk now accompanies King, whose zeal for equal rights did not apply to the woman whose brutal rape he reportedly applauded. If an asterisk is enough to knock down a statue, then King’s statues must be toppled, too.
2. The other option, and the one that I favor, is that we develop a different standard that can be equally applied to all historical figures. Rather than canonize our heroes on one hand, or demonize them on the other, we can humanize them. We begin to see them as real people, not caricatures, and we strive to understand and appreciate them as such. We do not hide our faces from the darker elements of their personalities. We do not justify their sins or rationalize them. We discuss them, openly and honestly. And we don’t look to turn them into cartoon villains, either. We see them as men — nothing more or less than that.
If they achieved great things, if they managed feats that few could manage, if they altered the course of human history, then we honor those accomplishments and perhaps even build statues in remembrance. We don’t erase anyone from the history books just because they had personal flaws — even very serious flaws. But perhaps we add another page or two. We keep the monuments because the monuments are part of our history and culture, but we keep in mind that the person commemorated by the monument was just that — a person. And that is how we think of them and remember them.
If this is where our reassessment of our historical heroes ultimately leads, I think it will be a positive change. We will finally be remembering and studying history like adults, not children. And it is through that more nuanced lens that we can, I think, continue to honor Martin Luther King Jr., despite the terrible evil he may have done. But he does not get to be an exception. If we extend that grace to MLK and his legacy, then we must extend it equally to all of our historical heroes. He is not a special case. He was a man just like them, and just as flawed. And that’s the point.