Martin Luther King biographer David Garrow recently published a bombshell story about alleged sexual crimes committed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His main findings were highlighted in part 1 of this series.
Here is a quick recap of the most shocking claims of his report:
Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King in the mid-1960’s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist Minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners,” while King ‘looked on and offered advice.’ The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.
How Should We Evaluate Great Historical Figures Who Committed Grave Sins?
The allegations, if true, against Dr. King, would be a devastating blow to his character.
Growing up, many kids are taught about the upstanding moral character displayed by Martin Luther King Jr. He is the man who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech that challenged us all to not judge “based on the color of our skin” but rather “the content of our character.”
He is the civil rights leader that refused to use violence as a tool for justice, but rather, used peaceful civil disobedience as a way to reach a more just society. He and his fellow civil rights activists changed the course of American History and finally delivered on the most famous of our founding creeds: “All Men Are Created Equal.”
Because of his actions, we are a more just society than we have been at any point in our history.
The Question Now Is: Does His Alleged Sexual Misconduct Take Away From His Achievements?
That is an important question given the attack on other sinful icons in American history. Figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; in response, memorials dedicated to them are being taken down across the country.
A plaque at the church of George Washington in Alexandria, Virginia was removed last year because it offended some of its members. Leaders like Al Sharpton have called for the removal of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Democratic Presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, has recently supported ending the “Jackson-Jefferson Dinners” in Indiana.
Abraham Lincoln hasn’t been immune from the controversy. Community members in Kalamazoo, Michigan have sought to prevent a statue of Lincoln from being built. They cite his derogatory comments about African Americans as justification for their position.
To them his past comments outweigh his contributions to the liberation of slaves and the passing of the 13th Amendment, which he guaranteed freedom to all former slaves.
The latest allegations against Martin Luther King require the same sort of revaluation. How should we treat him and other historical icons that have a blemished record?
Part of the problem is that people are not able to compartmentalize the lives of historical figures. It is a zero-sum proposition: Either those historical figures were all good or all bad. There is nothing nuanced about their views.
Granted, there are certain instances when this is true: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were clearly both evil people who should be treated harshly by history.
However, many historical icons accomplished great things in some areas of their lives and were deplorable in other parts.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are classic examples. Washington was the “father” of the country, who led America to victory in the war of independence. Thomas Jefferson penned the “Declaration of Independence” and was a champion of individual liberty.
Both men owned slaves. However, that shouldn’t take away from their role in establishing the freest nation on planet Earth. The principals they helped enshrine were greater than any personality.
The dignity of the individual has been more available in America than any other country on Earth. Without them this would not have been possible.
Martin Luther King Jr. should be treated along similar lines. If the allegations are true his sins and achievements should both be acknowledged.
Students should be taught the good and bad about King, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
It’s difficult because many people want heroes. Sadly, we all have “clay feet.”
No human should be deified, none of us are perfect. I am as big an admirer of the Founding Fathers as anyone in this country; however, I do not support them being treated as prophets sent to us from the heavens.
We should study them and King by learning from their successes and their moral failings, so we don’t commit the same mistakes ourselves.
It requires us to think more critically about historical icons and not accept the historical narrative that has been pushed on us.
Future generations would be better for it.