Editor’s note: This article has been updated with reactions from an author and an academic, in addition to details about Garrow’s past.
Martin Luther King Jr. allegedly had sexual relations with at least 40 women, from prostitutes to people within his inner circle, according to explosive new research published Thursday by David J. Garrow, one of the civil rights leader’s foremost biographers.
The most shocking allegation, culled from decades-old FBI files, details a 1964 incident in which King reportedly “looked on, laughed and offered advice” to a fellow preacher who was raping a woman in a hotel room.
Garrow recounts other allegations from formerly sealed FBI documents – including that King fathered a love child and participated in an orgy with a female gospel legend — in an eight-page essay he wrote for Standpoint, a British cultural and political magazine.
The incidents emerged as part of a National Archives data dump related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the release of more than 19,000 Kennedy-related documents. The documents include some surveillance summaries of FBI wiretaps of King between 1963 and 1966 in his home, office and hotel rooms, as well as information from informants who had infiltrated King’s circle.
The FBI allegations chronicled by Garrow could trigger a new examination of the civil rights hero’s personal life. Garrow is a prominent civil rights academic who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his King biography, “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
“I have been the King guy for 40 years and I wrote a book on exactly this 38 years ago,” said Garrow, referring to his 1981 book, “The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.” “I felt a complete obligation to confront this stuff. I did not feel I had a choice. I have always felt spiritually informed by King and yes, this changed it. I have not heard his voice much the past year.”
Bernice King, the youngest daughter of King and the chief executive of the Atlanta-based King Center, declined to comment on the essay.
King, as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was targeted by the FBI as part of COINTELPRO, a series of covert and at times illegal projects aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations like the SCLC, Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam.
After King’s 1963 March on Washington speech, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in authorizing surveillance of him, said of King: “We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
“They definitely had it in for King,” said Marc Perrusquia, a long-time investigative reporter and author of “A Spy in Canaan,” a true account of a well-respected black photographer who infiltrated the SCLC.
What started as an effort to find out whether King was influenced by Communists “morphed into this dirty, off-the-rails obsession that Hoover had with King, personally,” Perrusquia said. “It was known that Dr. King was having extramarital affairs and it became this very dirty, underhanded, un-American investigation of Dr. King. They were trying to dig deep into his personal life and smear him, basically.”
After the release of some of the FBI documents, Garrow spent weeks sifting through more than 54,000 weblinks, leading to thousands of multi-page PDF files. Garrow said he was looking for information in the documents about possible FBI informants in King’s orbit when he kept finding allegations about King’s sexual activities. Most of the documents are summaries of the tapes. The actual FBI tapes and most of the transcripts are still sealed, and aren’t scheduled to be released until 2027.
Historian Nathan Connolly, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is skeptical about how scholars use FBI files. He said the FBI culture even before the start of its counter intelligence program was to discredit black militancy.
“If the FBI had had information about King having been party to a sexual assault or observing a rape, that would be exactly the kind of information they would have used to bury him," he said. "The fact that this had not come to light and was not used for any previous campaign to discredit King gives me pause about considering it a credible accusation.”
Garrow pitched the story last fall to several U.S. publications, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which declined to publish the 7,800-word essay without access to the original source material.
The Sunday Times, a U.K. newspaper, published an article about Garrow’s research on Sunday and most of the coverage so far has been in various British publications. Garrow subsequently shared links to some of the FBI summaries on the government website with the AJC.
“The length was part of it for some of the outlets,” Garrow said. “And there is no question, in the age of Twitter, you have editors who are nervous about publishing something that a significant number of people aren’t going to want to see.”
Garrow has had his own allegations of personal misconduct. While a professor at Emory University's law school in 2002, Garrow was charged with simple battery against a female employee. The charges were dropped four years later, according to the student newspaper.
Civil rights icon, Nobel Peace Prize winner
Born and raised in Atlanta, King is one of America’s most celebrated figures of the 20th century.
Statues, streets and schools all over the country carry his name. Between 1955, when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, through his assassination in 1968, King was a symbol of civil and human rights.
He survived an assassination attempt in 1958, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and his efforts helped secure the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
More than 50 years after his death, he remains the only civilian to have a national holiday named after him and the only African American to have a monument on the National Mall.
But there have always been whispers about marital infidelity. And there was at least one documented instance where the FBI sent King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, an audio cassette of him with another woman, along with a letter to King suggesting that he kill himself before he is exposed.
“I always thought there were 10 to 12 other women,” Garrow said. “Not 40 to 45.”
In many of the accounts that Garrow documents, the FBI reported that King had been drinking.
“I think when he is behaving at his worst, he is always drunk,” Garrow said. “How do we say that without excusing atrocious male behavior because he is drunk?”
According to FBI documents uncovered by Garrow, on Jan. 5, 1964, King checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., along with several other ministers.
One of the ministers brought along several women from his Baltimore church with him and invited King to his room. There, according to an FBI summary transcript retrieved by Garrow, the men discussed “which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her.”
The document does not say that King participated in the rape, but while it is not typed into the document, a handwritten annotation about the incident says the civil rights leader “looked on, laughed and offered advice.”
There is no evidence that the FBI agents, listening from another room, tried to intervene.
“I think that this is very important in the whole #metoo context,” Garrow said. “Not only is [King] witnessing this, but the FBI is in the next room and doesn’t do anything. What if she was white? Would they have intervened then?”
The minister who allegedly raped the woman is no longer alive.
On April 27, 1964, six months before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, King was in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel where he was introduced to a prostitute by a prominent female gospel singer. According to the prostitute’s account to FBI investigators, she was paid $100 by the singer, who is no longer alive.
King, according to the FBI document, phoned one of his colleagues and told him to join him and the prostitute.
King and the singer allegedly had sex with the prostitute in a hotel room, before the man that King called earlier showed up and had sex with her, “while both [the singer] and the Rev. King watched the action from a close-by position.”
The prostitute “then stated that she was getting scared as they were pretty drunk and all using filthy language and at last she told [the singer] she would have to go,” the FBI report stated. The prostitute allegedly stated to an investigator that “that was the worst orgy I’ve ever gone through.”
The Love Child
One of the most bizarre incidents uncovered by Garrow in the FBI documents involved former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe, who was one of the first African Americans to play Major League Baseball.
In 1967, Newcombe allegedly wrote a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson expressing concerns for King’s upcoming Poor Peoples March. Newcombe eventually told the FBI that he was an in-law to a woman that King was having an affair with in Los Angeles, and that King had threatened to kill himself when the woman refused to say that she loved him.
Newcombe went on to say, according to the FBI documents, that he “believes King fathered a baby girl born to this woman inasmuch as her husband is allegedly sterile. The child resembles King to a great degree and King contributes to the support of this child. He calls this woman every Wednesday and frequently meets her in various cities throughout the country.”
Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this article.