Accounts of Martin Luther King’s misconduct are loosely supported

When a Pulitzer prizewinning biographer produces evidence that one of the most admired men in history colluded in and even applauded a rape, it’s to be expected that the story will land on the front page of a major mainstream newspaper and create an international firestorm.

The strange thing is that when Professor David Garrow wrote a “big read” accusing Martin Luther King of what would today be called “sexual misconduct”, neither happened. 

No major mainstream media outlets fought to publish his findings, which are based on summaries of tape recordings made in hotels and other locations in the early ’60s by the FBI. 

What actually happened, and how the world has reacted to the information, is as puzzling as it is fascinating.

According to Garrow, who published a major biography of Martin Luther King Jr in 1986, FBI files show their agents audio recorded King with another clergyman who has since died, in a room with women who attended their church, one of whom objected to the dirty talk going on. 

At which point the second clergymen attacked and raped her while King “looked on, laughed, and offered advice”. 

This anecdote comes into the public domain at a time when abusive sexual behaviour has changed attitudes and destroyed careers — and also at a time when the statues of historic figures like Robert E Lee are being removed from public spaces because the gallantry they represent is considered, contemporaneously, to be outweighed by what they fought for — the continued subjugation of African American slaves. 

Yet nobody has called for the public holiday named after Martin Luther King to be chopped from the calendar, or any of the myriad of roads named after him to be renamed.

In the light of the lack of reaction when it eventually was published, it may be worthwhile to backtrack a little. 

The piece was rejected for publication by several big US newspapers. 

It was eventually purchased by The Guardian, which then decided against publication. 

Some of the sparse commentary since they decided not to publish has wondered at the decision, interpreting the paper as being cowardly in the face of potential hostile reaction. 

However, anyone who reads the 8,000-word essay eventually published by online magazine Standpoint might counter-suggest that one of the reasons behind The Guardian decision may have been that, having bought it because it contained a few hand-over-mouth revelations, they may then have found it impossible to edit into any kind of coherence because of its endless digressions into changes in US law since the recordings were made and into the fates of obscure FBI informants. 

In its entirety, the essay comes close to Gertrude Stein’s famous comment that “when you get there, there’s no ‘there’ there”. 

The rape is horrific. But the account of it is as padded as an immersion tank in a green home.

Any good mainstream outlet has its expensive no-shows: work by a trusted writer that, when filed, just doesn’t fit the bill. 

The writer gets paid something and the piece is spiked. 

The Guardian haven’t said why they decided not to publish, but it’s fair to speculate that, quite apart from its padded irrelevancies, the first worry they may have had was that, without hearing the recordings, they were relying on a man who also doesn’t seem to have listened to them. 

Accounts of Martin Luther King’s misconduct are loosely supported

So, in sequence, they would be hanging their reputation on summaries written by agents for an organisation generally viewed as having declared a fatwa on the civil rights leader during his short public life. 

In addition, if they published, their story would depend on dead men who themselves colluded in the alleged rape by not intervening when they could hear what was going on.

However, other stories which first saw the light on limited-readership websites have created a global stir, which this one assuredly did not. 

But then, King was not the personification of a power bloc within American politics or industry. Harvey Weinstein and several others highlighted by the #MeToo movement were precisely that. 

Each of those guys started powerful and worked up to omnipotent.

Even Bill Cosby had reached a point of wealth and — it seemed — benign power. As a massive financial contributor to academic institutions, he attained mythic status and his tearing down, accordingly, delivered a purgative satisfaction that went beyond the man himself.

Cosby and King have something else in common. Their sexual exploitativeness was contemporaneously known but overlooked. 

The man who — a decade ago — wrote what at the time looked like the definitive biography of the actor/comedian has confessed that he knew about Cosby’s transgressions but confined himself, in the book, to a brief reference to presumed infidelities forgiven by Cosby’s wife. 

Similarly, earlier books, like Hellhound on his Trail, published in 2010, established that Martin Luther King was a womaniser and a binge drinker.

But being known as a womaniser and a binge drinker does not quite explain the lack of outrage when it is suggested the preacher was complicit in a rape and himself violent with women, as Garrow proposes.

Perhaps that lack of outrage has its roots in fear of being called racist.

The racial issue matters, too, because King’s victims were black unknowns, whereas the women taking cases against Weinstein in the US and Philip Green in the UK were in the main if not exclusively white and, just as important, were known. 

Not all of them are household name famous, although some of those who ended up in anonymity and in jobs other than acting would claim it was Weinstein’s predation that curtailed their climb to the top in showbusiness. 

But enough of them were familiar faces to create a new understanding of this kind of behaviour; even the beautiful, the talented, the ambitious, experience workplace groping the rest of us assumed was the prerogative only of the forgotten anonymous.

The sheer scale of the deification of Martin Luther King also mitigates against discussion. 

Every second city in the United States has a road named after the civil rights leader. 

Every emerging black leader is compared to him. His rhetoric is definitive. No other African American figure has achieved that permanent presence in the lives of so many Americans. 

In fact, many of the 20th and 21st century African American figures have faded into a puzzling obscurity.

But — and this may be important — perhaps, also, readers of the expose have come to the nuanced view of King he would himself hold.

“There is a schizophrenia, as the psychologists or psychiatrists would call it, going on within all of us. There are times that all of us know somewhere that there is a Mr Hyde and a Doctor Jekyll in all of us,” he observed in a sermon preached in 1968.

“God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”

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