What skeptics are saying about MLK misconduct allegations

FBI’s long-buried allegations of MLK misconduct met with skepticism

Academics, supporters question agency’s motives, biographer’s evidence

Andrew Young spent hundreds of nights with Martin Luther King Jr. traveling and living out of hotel rooms when he started working with him in 1961 until the night King died on April 4, 1968.

Never, Young said, did he see, hear or witness the salacious accounts that historian David J. Garrow published in an explosive May 30 essay based on FBI documents detailing King’s alleged sexual activities, including allegedly witnessing a rape.

“The man has been dead for 50 years. I don’t know why anybody would write a story like this,” said Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “I have been hearing these rumors, even when Martin was alive, but I never saw anything, and I have never found anybody who said they saw something personally, or they heard something personally.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC director Andrew Young during a press conference in 1967.
Photo: Bob Dendy, Photographer) Printed on negative envelope: “King, Martin Luther. April 25, 1967. 30258. Dendy.”

Young isn’t alone in dismissing the allegations, particularly that King witnessed a rape. African Americans who only know King from books and images also say they don’t believe the allegations. The son of the preacher accused of committing the rape while King was in the room also disputes the account.

Many question the credibility of the FBI, which had a well-documented history in the 1960s of harassing and trying to bring down civil rights leaders, King more than others. Although Garrow has a decades-long reputation as a meticulous researcher, some historians also question his decision to publish unsubstantiated allegations.

» READ MORE | People react to allegations against MLK

Outside the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached on Sundays even as he led the civil rights movement, several people said they didn’t believe the allegations. Most of them had just finished touring the interior of the church where recordings of King’s sermons played over loudspeakers in the sanctuary.

Marissa Hill, 32, of Grayson, had been wiping away tears after hearing King’s words inside the church. Outside, after being told of the FBI summaries by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, her mood changed.

“I need proof. I need evidence. I don’t buy it,” said Hill. “It sounds like interpretations of interpretations of what actually happened. How much research have they done into this to know that it’s not just an accusation with no merit whatsoever?”

King is a revered figure, not just in the United States but around the world. There are streets and schools named after him. Many African-American homes and churches contained his photograph during the 1960s and 1970s. A statue of King is on display in Washington, D.C. And there is a national holiday named in his honor.

People visit the Martin Luther King Historic sites in Atlanta on Thursday May 30th, 2019. 
Photo: (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Donna Murch, a history professor at Rutgers University, said there is a long history dating back to Reconstruction of powerful interests trying to destroy black leaders by accusing them of sexual deviance and rape. She also questioned those who say it represents a #MeToo moment for King’s legacy.

“Given that unsubstantiated FBI documents are being used rather than claims of actual people, this claim is highly suspect,” Murch said. “The more obvious context for Garrow’s claim is the long history of the sexualization of black politics and leaders as a way to invalidate legitimate political claims.”

Many in media tread carefully

Last December, Garrow approached several American news outlets, including the AJC, about publishing his 7,800-word essay. They all declined, including the AJC, because they lacked access to the original source material.

In late May, Standpoint, a right-of-center magazine in London, published it in full. The AJC and other publications, including The New York Times and Washington Post, have since reported on the allegations.

David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer
Photo: HANDOUT

In his essay, Garrow sifted through more than 19,000 documents in John F. Kennedy assassination files unsealed in 2018. Garrow wrote, based on the FBI documents, that King had sexual relations with at least 40 women in the 1960s.

The most damning allegation was that the civil rights leader and youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize was present during the rape of a woman by a fellow minister in a Washington, D.C. hotel room on Jan. 5, 1964.

Some conservative media outlets have pounced on the allegations. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh asked if King’s memorial on the National Mall should be taken down or if the hundreds of schools and streets named for him should be renamed.

» RELATED | Biographer Garrow pens explosive report 

None of King’s children, including Bernice King, his youngest daughter and president of the King Center, would comment.

The rape allegation is based on a single paragraph in the thousands of pages of documents that Garrow examined. FBI agents, in a typed summary, said King was at the Willard Hotel when a Baltimore preacher invited him into a room full of women. When one of the women refused to have sex, the preacher, according to the internal FBI document, raped her. A handwritten notation in the margins of the file said that while the woman was being raped, King “looked on, laughed and offered advise (sic).”

Kenneth O’Reilly, who has written extensively about the FBI, said it was not out of the ordinary for a second agent to come behind an original report and offer notations after hearing a recording.

“None of this, of course, means that there was a rape or that MLK laughed,” said O’Reilly, author of “Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972.” “A tape transcript can be read one way, the actual audio can be heard an entirely different way. Plus you have FBI agendas at work that can make up seem like down.”

AJC editor Kevin Riley and reporter Ernie Suggs talk about why the AJC did not initially publish an explosive report on Martin Luther King Jr., written by biographer David J. Garrow. The two also talk about the allegations made in transcripts obtained by Garrow.

The FBI’s war on King

While King was on the front lines of the civil rights movement, fighting against institutionalized racism, he was in another war – albeit a secret one – with the FBI.

Along with Young, one of King’s closest advisors was Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer from New York City that the FBI had been following since the early 1950s on the suspicion that he was a Communist.

King met Levison in 1956 and by 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – with the approval of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — began tailing King in what became one of the most notorious abuses of power in the agency’s history. They paid rogue Southern Christian Leadership Conference workers to spy on King and the movement.

They bugged his home and office and with information gathered there, sent teams of agents to his hotel rooms to make sure they were bugged before he checked in. Young said they knew about the spies and double agents that were working for SCLC and they always assumed that they were being bugged.

» MORE | Why the AJC is reporting the MLK sex allegations

From the FBI files on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo: FBI

The search for Communist connections became less important when the surveillance began to chronicle alleged extramarital sexual activities. When newspapers and politicians balked at reporting the leaked details of the sexual activity, the bureau sent a tape of one incident to King’s wife, along with a letter suggesting he kill himself.

“Hoover literally hated King,” said University of Kentucky historian Gerald Smith, who has co-edited a volume of the King Papers at Stanford University. “King was considered the most dangerous black person in America because of his ability to build coalitions and he was becoming more outspoken in terms of his criticism of the FBI and questioning their loyalty and commitment to what the FBI stands for, particularly as it relates to protecting black people. ”

In 1977, a federal judge, as part of an SCLC lawsuit, ordered that all tapes and transcripts from the FBI’s electronic surveillance of King be held under seal in the National Archives for a period of 50 years and that the tapes or their contents could not be disclosed except under a specific court order. That would make them available in 2027. The last attempt to open the files failed in 1983, when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms sought to have the file opened before he voted on the King National Holiday bill.

“Uncle Mike”

The allegation that King witnessed a rape is based on a handwritten sentence in a typed FBI summary of its surveillance. Neither the transcript nor the audio recording that it would be based on are in the public domain.

The AJC reviewed the handwritten sentence and summary on the National Archives website. The name of the preacher did not appear in the document, but Garrow identified him in his essay as I. Logan Kearse. Kearse, who later became head of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Church of Christ, died in 1991 after a series of strokes.

Garrow said he thinks FBI intelligence chief William Sullivan or one of his deputies penned the handwritten note. Sullivan is no longer alive.

I. Logan Kearse holds a photograph of his dad Reverend Kearse with Martin Luther King Jr. taken in the 1950s during an interview at his residence beneath one of his paintings, this one depicting the Mount of Transfiguration on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Decatur. 
Photo: (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

The minister’s son, I. Logan Kearse II, a 71-year-old Decatur artist and ordained minister, said he was blindsided by the allegations. The grandfather of 13 said he never spoke with Garrow and never heard of his father being involved in a rape. He found out about the essay after a cousin sent a text.

“Personally, it’s hard for me to believe that,” said Kearse, the son, grandson and great-grandson of ministers. “My father was not an angel. He was not a saint. He had his shortcomings and his faults, but to forcibly take a woman and then for Martin to sit there and encourage him, that’s just beyond the two men that I know.”

Holding a black-and-white photo of his father and King, whom he called “Uncle Mike,” Kearse said the two men met while they were both studying in Boston in the early 1950s. 

This is a copy of a family photo of Reverend I.L. Kearse with Martin Luther King Jr. taken in the 1950s and shared by Kearse’s son on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Decatur.
Photo: (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

The elder Kearse was with King in 1961, when they were arrested in Albany for demonstrating, and in 1964 in Oslo, when King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, according to a Baltimore Sun obituary.

In questioning the rape allegation, many have asked why the FBI didn’t intervene and stop a crime that was being committed in the room next to them.

» RELATED | Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before the dream

“Given Hoover and Sullivan’s obsession with King, it seems a bit odd that they would have sat on the MLK laughing at a rape story,” said O’Reilly, the author. “Maybe they tried to peddle it and no reporter bit. Or maybe Hoover and Sullivan didn’t think it was credible. Who really knows? That’s why David Garrow really put himself out there.”

The FBI didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Garrow confident in findings

Garrow is confident the information is accurate. He has been writing about FBI surveillance for 40 years and said that of the minute-by-minute logs, summaries and transcripts he has seen -- like the wiretapped surveillance of King associates Levison, Clarence Jones and Bayard Rustin -- the corresponding summaries are “about 99.9% accurate.”

“The only errors we usually see is when the FBI is too phonetic or too literal,” Garrow said. “But I know this is not a popularity contest. This article, as with my books — whether on the FBI, King or Roe v. Wade — I am doing what I am doing for the long run. The article will still be read and studied after people forget this week’s blog post.”

Garrow, who won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” has his supporters.

» RELATED | Garrow has long chronicled King’s life

Jason Miller, an English professor at North Carolina State University, called Garrow a brilliant researcher to the point where “I feel shocked, stunned and astonished, by what he has written.”

Miller who wrote “Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric,” said he has put on hold at least two King projects he was working on.

“The fact that we are now asking if MLK was an abuser — and I mean that in at least three ways, someone who abused alcohol, verbally abused women, and perhaps even ignored women being physically abused — this suggests that the narrative has now changed surrounding Dr. King’s legacy, and we are now entering a new era in evaluating this beloved historical figure,” Miller said.

Yeah Beyene (back to camera, from Atlanta) takes a picture of his brother Wolde, sister in-law Meseret & sister Elsi (from Houston) at the Martin Luther King crypt in Atlanta on Thursday May 30th, 2019. 
Photo: (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Kenyette Tisha Barnes, co-founder of the #MuteRKelly movement, said King’s legacy might not escape unscathed.

“I see this as a reckoning for the movement. We’ve seen it in politics, in the clergy and in the entertainment industry,” Barnes said. “We don’t demand enough that our leaders have checks and balances. Bad things can happen in what we perceive as benign spaces. Powerful men get a pass because they’re powerful.”

But Elaine Brown, a former chairman of the Black Panther Party, and the subject of FBI surveillance herself, dismissed the allegations outright.

“Anybody with half a brain knows about J. Edgar Hoover’s constant efforts to malign Dr. King. Nobody was targeted more,” Brown said. “This is just maligning the name of Dr. King, even in his death. This is all an attempt to discredit black people, particularly black men.”

Staff reporters Rosalind Bentley and Ty Tagami contributed to this report.

This article was corrected to reflect that Garrow’s statement about 99.9% accuracy referred to FBI logs, summaries and transcripts. 

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