Another chapter about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is now being hewn into history, a full half-century after a murderer’s bullet ended his remarkable journey on this earth.
As it was then, so it is now that controversy and strong feelings still encompass public discourse about King, his life and his legacy. The latest spark to shift discussion from today’s almost-obligatory, often-cursory, veneration of his civil rights work is a long piece by a noted historian published last week in a conservative British magazine.
David Garrow’s 7,800-word essay is built upon information gleaned from once-secret FBI notes made public under a law governing records of the Kennedy assassination. Garrow’s revelations have drawn attention because they add further grist to old assertions that King was a serial adulterer. The latest narrative’s FBI details posit that King participated in sexual orgies and, perhaps most damningly, may have been present when a fellow minister allegedly raped a woman.
Predictably, this article has set a corner of the Internet ablaze, as King’s detractors set about lambasting the behavior outlined by Garrow. That is no surprise. King’s audacious – and good – public works threatened many, especially while he was alive. His power to produce these emotions and fears has not lessened since his 1968 assassination.
None of which is to say that sexual assault, or harassment, of any kind should be ignored, overlooked, or rationalized away. Such behavior is as wrong today as it was in the 1960s, or at any other point since the dawn of time.
Yet, history means little without the inclusion of context. And that demands recognition that societal standards — and the morals and ethics which support them — shift and evolve across time. This Editorial Board has stated this concept in recent years around different causes, such as our urging that Confederate monuments not be yanked from public view in a knee-jerk manner. The rebel South’s leaders and their deeds should remain present, but be assessed through today’s sentiments, we’ve argued. Neither mythologizing the Old South or obliterating its reminders achieves that goal, we believe.
A similar situation may be bubbling up now in some corners around the late Rev. King, and his global legacy.
We’d suggest, first of all, that it as an inappropriate rush to judgment to condemn Georgia’s best-known son without having the facts fully before us. That’s unlikely to happen before 2027, when FBI records are due to be unsealed. Only then will the full body of the FBI’s extensive spying on King and those close to him be available for public and scholarly review.
We’d urge that the National Archives and the FBI not destroy any of this material between now and then. It deserves to be disclosed and studied in due course.
Until then, a thorough assessment is not possible. It is this inability to corroborate on our own Garrow’s latest work that led this newspaper – and other leading publications – to pass on publishing it.
We’d add as well that any reconsideration of King, his actions or his personal life should be considered only alongside an informed knowledge of the motives at the time of the FBI, and its longtime director J. Edgar Hoover. History has shown that it’s not unreasonable to see them as skewed and suspect, if not worse. What else can be thought of an agency that sent a letter to King, judgmentally urging him to commit suicide because of what FBI leadership saw as moral failings.
In the interim between today and 2027, though, where does this leave King’s legacy?
We’d suggest that the focus should remain on King’s public work and results. They are overwhelmingly and incontrovertibly positive, most would agree. That’s not an overstatement in assessing the life’s effort of a man – and his legion supporters — whose peaceful, insistent challenges and costly, often-bloody sacrifices revamped America for the better.
High, if not highest, among those sacrifices was that King paid for his action-backed beliefs with his own life on that storied motel balcony in Memphis. As The Atlanta Constitution’s Editor Ralph McGill wrote the next day, “Dr. King’s death may bring about what he sought for himself, his people and country.”
There’s a broader context here that must not be lost, too. History, and the present, are replete with acts of valor, wisdom and prescience undertaken by people who, like all of us, are flawed. God, or in a secular sense, the course of the universe if you will, has seen countless examples of people who’ve changed the course of history while falling well short of one or more benchmarks of good, and appropriate, human behavior.
The scriptures upon which Rev. King and many others relied can provide some context perhaps in how we can assess behavior, human frailties, flaws and even the propensity to sin common to us all.
A portion of the great King David’s Psalms are instructive here – in good part because it was written by a man who was no stranger to adultery, deceit and human failings that, among other things, led to loss of life: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.”
Later in the Psalms, David wrote, “God looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
Every one of them has turned aside;
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good, No, not one.”
That is useful context about human fallibility. It is universal, and walks with all of us, to some degree or another.
And in thinking about Atlanta’s best-known minister of the Christian gospel, we’d suggest that Jesus’ words about the transcendence of sacrifice have meaning here:
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
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