How to Make Sense of the Shocking New MLK DocumentsBreaking News
tags: Martin Luther King, FBI, Jr., David Garrow
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
What do you do when a great hero is alleged to have done something awful?
Politicians, historians, universities, artists and citizens in general have been grappling with this question for years. Renewed attention to racism and discrimination has prompted the reassessment of historical giants from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill to Gandhi. Sexual harassment revelations have felled a forest of cultural, political and business bigshots. Tasteless jokes, dubious comments or ill-advised tweets have led to scores of people being fired from prominent positions.
Now Martin Luther King Jr. is in the spotlight. On Thursday, David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King—and the author of other acclaimed books on Roe v. Wade and Barack Obama—reported in the conservative British magazine Standpoint on explosive material that he found in recently published FBI documents. The article, based on FBI reports summarizing the bureau’s audio surveillance of King, makes for uncomfortable reading, to say the least.
The most shocking claim Garrow relates is that King was present in a hotel room when a friend of his, Baltimore pastor Logan Kearse, raped a woman who resisted participating in unspecified sexual acts. The FBI agent who surveilled the room asserted that King “looked on, laughed and offered advice.” Other allegations include that King’s philandering—long known to be extensive—was even more rampant than historians knew; that King took part in group sex; that King may have fathered a child with one of his mistresses; and—less pruriently—that King continued taking money from his onetime ally Stanley Levison, a Communist Party member, even after he was supposed to have broken off ties.
Right-wing media have pounced on the story, fairly delighting in the discomfort it poses to liberals, especially those who’ve been calling for the demotion of other eminences. “Martin Luther King Jr. Was Reportedly an Abuser Who Laughed at Rape,” blared The Daily Wire. “Is It Time to Tear His Monuments Down?” Meanwhile, liberal and mainstream media have so far seemed skittish about the topic—as Garrow discovered when he tried but failed to get several non-partisan U.S. publications to run it. (One paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported on Garrow’s claims last week while also publishing a thorough account of its decision not to publish the original article itself.) News outlets usually pause before running salacious allegations against public figures, especially when they’re open to doubt—although in recent years that restraint has been eroding quickly. But with a long-dead historical figure, the hesitancy is more surprising. It’s easy to wonder if a desire to shield King’s reputation, or to avoid Twitter blowback, could be at work. Even discussions of history, it seems, are becoming ever more politically polarized.