It would be folly to overlook or minimize the contributions of the Rev. Martin Luther King to racial equality in America. Forty-six years after he was assassinated, this country still owes the towering civil-rights leader an undiminished debt of gratitude.
So it’s not that I can’t stand the guy. Hell, I admire him (mostly).
It’s the saintifying and pussyfooting and whitewashing I’m allergic to.
King is in the news again after the unredacted version of a contemptible letter from the mid-sixties surfaced that was sent to him anonymously by men in the employ of infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The typed screed is full of over-the-top, God-infused condemnations of King’s outsized sexual appetites, and ends with a strong hint that the reverend should commit suicide to prevent evidence of his extramarital affairs and orgies from being made public. You can read the letter in its entirety here. The fact that a so-called law-enforcement agency sent it should shock the conscience of every American who places (too much) trust in the government.
So what about his exploits with women?
To be honest, I don’t care who Martin Luther King consensually bedded, and how, and how often, and who else participated. That was all between him, his partners, his wife Coretta, and their God.
But I will note that his bedroom behavior was wildly at odds with the Bible and what he claimed as God’s truth.
As his friend and confidant Ralph Abernathy (himself a minister) recalled, King
“… understood and believed in the Biblical prohibition against sex outside marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.”
Abernathy added that King spent his last night on Earth in a motel room with two consecutive lovers, followed by an aggressive encounter with a third woman whom King
“… knocked… across the bed… and for a moment they were in a full-blown fight, with Martin clearly winning.”
Not so non-violent after all, then.
“I’m away from home 25 to 27 days a month. Fucking’s a form of anxiety reduction.”
I sympathize in that regard, but with his string of (let’s say) peccadilloes, the reverend was nonetheless a sexual hypocrite. Granted, he didn’t fall on the same end of the scale as, for instance, the Christian child rapists we’ve featured so often on this blog. Not even close. But he was certainly a good distance short of living up to his professed beliefs.
By the way, I agree with Abernathy when he wrote:
“Sexual sins are by no means the worst. Hatred and a cold disregard for others are the besetting sins of our time.”
Theft, for instance, would be worse than extramarital nookie, right?
It so happens that besides being a serial womanizer, King was also a lifelong plagiarist.
King’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University, titled A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, included large sections from a dissertation written by another student (Jack Boozer) three years earlier. …
As Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University, has written, “instances of textual appropriation can be seen in his earliest extant writings as well as his dissertation. The pattern is also noticeable in his speeches and sermons throughout his career.”
Evidently, Thou shalt not steal was not part of our man of God’s moral code.
Despite his ill-gotten Ph.D. in theology, and despite his being an ordained minister, Martin Luther King has become one of the closest things the secular world has to a saint. Perhaps that is at it should be, considering that his accomplishments in smashing the remnants of the Jim Crow era far outweigh his shortcomings. However, those shortcomings merit attention from anyone who is even mildly distrustful of ostensible saints and other holy cows.
America loves its binary good-or-evil narratives, but none of us over the age of 10 do ourselves any favors when we close our eyes to realities that don’t fit into such a charming if childlike view of the world.