Martin Luther King Jr laughed as he watched a rape - report

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo credit: Getty

By Jason Miller for The Conversation

Jason Miller is an English professor at North Carolina State University, and a Martin Luther King Jr scholar.

OPINION: David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr, has unearthed information that may forever change King's legacy.

In an 8000-word article published in the British periodical Standpoint Magazine on May 30, Garrow details the contents of FBI memos he discovered after spending weeks sifting through more than 54,000 documents located on the National Archive's website. Initially sealed by court order until 2027, the documents ended up being made available in recent months through the President John F Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

The most damaging memos describe King witnessing a rape in a hotel room. Instead of stopping it, handwritten notes in the file say he encouraged the attacker to continue.

King was once thought of as a saint beyond reproach. After his death, it eventually emerged that he was a womanizer.

If these FBI memos are accurate - and I have good reason to believe they are - we now have to ask the unthinkable: Was King an abuser? And what might this mean for his legacy?

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo credit: Getty

Other outlets baulk

The FBI files contained some other notable information.

Garrow writes that King may have fathered a daughter with Dolores Evans, a girlfriend of his who is still alive and living in Los Angeles. The memos also detail the closeness of his relationship with Dorothy Cotton, a longtime associate of King's in Atlanta and director of his organisation's Citizen Education Program. It appears that the two were romantically involved.

Many of these transcripts were based on audiotapes that are still sealed under a court order.

Garrow had taken his findings to other outlets, but each decided against publishing them. The Guardian initially agreed to take the story, edited the piece, paid Garrow for his work and then decided the story was too risky to run. Editors at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they didn't want to run the piece because they couldn't listen to the actual recordings the documents were based on. Some historians have questioned Garrow's choice to publish the content of the memos and transcripts without listening to the recordings, and have pointed out that the FBI had spent years trying to undermine King.

However, I've gotten to know Garrow and his work over the last 11 years while conducting my own extensive research into King's use of Langston Hughes' poetry. Garrow has the same reputation among historians as Bob Woodward has among journalists - that is to say, I have no reason to doubt Garrow's intentions or the accuracy of his article.

King's sexual exploits long known

Soon after King's death, several members of his inner circle, including Ralph Abernathy, started publicly discussing King's philandering.

At the time, many justified his behaviour by saying it was no different from the biblical David writing his psalms by day, only to be relieved at night by his concubines. Others pursued a line of defense extended to John F Kennedy: What someone does in their own time isn't the public's business.

Garrow had outlined several of King's marital infelicities in his 1986 biography of King. But he often spared the names of the women involved to protect their identities. Finally, in 2010, Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers recounted her intimate relationship with King in her book I Shared the Dream.

But what has just emerged takes things to a whole new level: It now seems that King failed to stop a rape.

Memos detail a rape

During FBI director J Edgar Hoover's 48-year tenure, the agency greatly expanded the scope of its surveillance activities - often at the behest of sitting Presidents. While Harry Truman worried the FBI was becoming a "citizen spy system", Presidents like Lyndon B Johnson eagerly gave Hoover permission to gather information on political enemies.

Starting in late 1963 and continuing until his death, the FBI had been tracking King's every move. FBI surveillance of King began with the goal of uncovering the relationship of King and his closest advisers, like Stanley Levison, with communists. But over time, the FBI started to fixate on King's sexual exploits. In an era of lenient surveillance laws, J Edgar Hoover was able to gain unmitigated access into King's personal life.

The memos show that agents knew that King and a group including Baltimore Pastor Logan Kearse were going to be staying at the Willard Hotel in January 1964 days before he ever arrived.

By bugging the room, they were able to listen in on King and at least 11 others participated in what the FBI memos describe as "an orgy" on January 6, 1964.

The microphones also picked up activities from the night before, when Kearse, who died in 1991, allegedly sexually assaulted one of his parishioners. According to the memos, King was in the room. The handwritten note indicates that King didn't just observe the assault - he laughed.

Worse, instead of trying to stop the incident, the memos say King apparently offered advice to the perpetrator, encouraging the abuse.

What happens next?

The information contained in the memos won't be confirmed until 2027. That's when the FBI's full audiotapes, photographs and film footage of King will be unsealed per a 1977 court order.

Some might doubt the FBI's trustworthiness given the agency's historic treatment of black activists. But as someone who has researched similar files, I believe Garrow's experienced approach parses each of these acts with absolute precision. As Garrow explains in his article: "Without question [the agents] had both the microphone-transmitted tape-recording and a subsequent full transcript at hand while they were annotating their existing typescript; in 1977 Justice Department investigators would publicly attest to how their own review of both the tapes and the transcripts showed them to be genuine and accurate. Throughout the 1960s, when no precedent for the public release of FBI documents existed or was even anticipated, [the agents] could not have imagined [their] jottings would ever see the light of day."

It's natural to want to defend King - to say, "let's wait and see".

Others might try to argue that abuse precedes abuse, and that the long legacy of slavery still informed the actions of these revered black clergy who subconsciously became like their oppressors. This legacy, of course, often included white men raping black women and sometimes disowning their children.

But I don't think any filter of rationalisation can soften this portrait of King. I'm not prepared to wait eight years, and I've halted my two scholarly projects about King.

I've also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain - and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.

The narrative has just changed. And if scholarship and true biographical research matters at all, one thing is clear: These FBI memos may have forever damaged King's legacy.

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