A Black Feminist’s Response to Attacks on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

As a black feminist and a civil rights historian, I do not need to be persuaded that many black male ministers during the civil rights era were morally duplicitous, felt sexually entitled and slept around. So did many Catholic priests, politicians, Hollywood celebrities and some award-winning male academics.

Many historians have already argued that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have been no different. However, David Garrow’s essay published last week in Standpoint, a conservative British magazine  goes much further, making the serious allegation that Dr. King may have witnessed and encouraged a rape. Absolutely any allegation of rape has to be taken seriously. However, this irresponsible account, drawn from questionable documents, has serious shortcomings and risks turning readers into historical peeping Toms by trafficking in what amounts to little more than rumor and innuendo from F. B.I. files.

Rape, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual assault are very serious accusations in our own time, and all too often women making those charges are doubted, dismissed or simply not believed as in the cases of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, who bravely came forward with credible stories, and the R. Kelly accusers who for many years told of their own nightmarish ordeals. The voices of these survivors must be heard and taken seriously, and the perpetrators must be held accountable. The F.B.I. allegations, funneled through Mr. Garrow’s essay, have nothing to do with this effort. It is not a woman’s voice we are being asked to believe here, but the F.B.I.’s — a source with blatantly ulterior motives.

Let me underscore a critical line to draw in our assessment of this new reporting. It is a point that feminist scholars and L.G.B.T.Q. activists have insisted upon for some time. Consenting sexual activity, even activity that mainstream public opinion might not condone, is the prerogative of the adults involved. Rape, on the other hand, is a violent crime. A major problem with Mr. Garrow’s essay, questionable evidence aside, is that he fails to adequately distinguish between the two.

Mr. Garrow walks the reader through the graphic details of what 1960s F.B.I. agents described as Dr. King’s consensual encounters with numerous women. Whether or not Mr. Garrow intended it, the attention in his essay to these reports reads to me as an effort to offer circumstantial evidence to support an allegation of a rape that purportedly occurred in Dr. King’s presence.

The lurid and gratuitous sexual narratives that Mr. Garrow recounts from F.B.I. edited summaries are reminiscent of the racist manner in which black sexuality has been described historically: insatiable and as the F.B.I. wrote three times, “unnatural.” The essay’s headline describes Dr. King as a “libertine,” capable of raunchy sex and crude talk. This bigger frame of the essay, as Dr. Garrow crafts it, suggests to the reader that maybe it’s possible after all that this proponent of nonviolence, “looked on, laughed and offered advice” as a friend of his, a Baltimore minister, “forcibly raped” one of his parishioners in a Washington hotel room in 1964.

Where is the evidence? And whose story is this? Mr. Garrow has not seen a transcript or listened to the tape of this alleged incident himself. Both are sealed until 2027. The documents he has reviewed were made available inadvertently through the release of the John Kennedy assassination papers by the National Archives. The mention of Dr. King’s having been in the room during an alleged rape “appears only as an annotation,” one handwritten sentence added to the typed summary. Mr. Garrow ascribes the scribble to either William Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division, whose personal file was the source of the document containing the rape allegation, or one of his associates. In other words, we don’t even know who the author is.

Mr. Garrow goes on to speculate that the prudish Mr. Sullivan, who may or may not have written the damning sentence, and his aides were unlikely to have embellished this account and had no “apparent motive” to do so. Really? Who knows what motivated them, but the motives of their boss, the notorious F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, are well known: to destroy and discredit Dr. King and later other black freedom movement leaders. Cointelpro, the counterintelligence program of the F.B.I. that later spied on and subverted the work of groups like the Black Panther Party, was even implicated in an assassination.

The F.B.I. as a sole source for accurate historical evidence of this nature is highly problematic. In my own research on two individuals who were subjects of F.B.I. surveillance in the 1950s and 60s, I found F.B.I. files enormously unreliable, as many of my colleagues do. There were errors, incoherent scribblings, illegible notes, typos and inaudible tapes throughout. Informants are usually very vulnerable or highly incentivized subjects, and therefore their accounts are fraught. Writing my book on Ella Baker, the civil rights organizer, I learned that the F.B.I. surveillance of her was so inept that an agent mistook her husband for her cousin, a fact that could easily have been verified. We have to approach these sources with a healthy skepticism and always look for corroborating evidence to support or refute information that is provided. We have to be careful not to become an academic rumor mill.

The #MeToo movement is the culmination of decades of agitation around the pervasive problems of sexual assault and harassment. Rich and famous sexual predators have been brought down by the courageous stories of women who are finally being believed. In this climate, Mr. Garrow seems to want his own “Me first” spotlight by getting out in front of an unsubstantiated story, but the problem is this: He presumptuously tells his version of stories of women who never themselves acknowledged being victims or survivors. We cannot put the F.B.I.’s words in their mouths and call it justice.

If in 2027 when the full F.B.I. tapes are released there is credible and corroborated evidence that a sexual assault occurred and Dr. King was somehow involved, we will have to confront that relevant and reprehensible information head-on. But we are not there.

Meanwhile, to accept highly suspicious evidence as fact and to dress it up with a litany of salacious anecdotes is to complete the job J. Edgar Hoover failed to do two generations ago, when he dedicated himself to denigrating Dr. King’s life and work. Mr. Garrow’s piece also names numerous black women, most of them dead, who were allegedly Dr. King’s willing romantic partners, delving into their private lives without their consent or any compelling reason. This is as reckless and unethical as the actions of newspaper tabloids that circulate titillating gossip to sell papers.

Given the expressed mission of the agency to thwart Dr. King — with one agent going so far as to urge him to kill himself — we have to wonder where fact ends and fiction begins in the reports that Mr. Garrow cites. He knows that the F.B.I. went to great lengths in a ruthless effort to undermine Dr. King, whom they feared was a puppet of Communist operatives. He writes about this in his 1981 book on the subject as have many others, and yet now he accepts these F.B.I. summaries as having passed the smell test.

Ella Baker, who worked alongside Dr. King for many years, warned us of the dangers of putting individual leaders on pedestals. They are human beings like the rest of us. We can criticize their failings and still find value in their contributions, so long as we are learning lessons and not looking for someone to worship. Again, we must draw a hard line between charges of extramarital affairs and the charge of egging on a rapist. The bottom line is Dr. King was not a saint nor a savior, but one man embedded in a larger movement that made a powerful impact on this nation and the world.

At a time of resurgent white nationalism, Dr. King’s message of racial and economic justice, and the movement that he built alongside thousands of other imperfect people, is still vitally important. We have to grapple with his full legacy, whatever it turns out to be and however uncomfortable it makes us. But Mr. Garrow’s account of F.B.I. spying and half-baked findings does not give us the information we need to do this. Sadly, conservative pundits have already taken the story and run with it, true or not.

What historians do know for sure is this: Dr. King was a radical visionary of a more just society, a powerful, committed and eloquent voice for freedom, justice and equality, principles that are under full-scale assault at this moment. How unfortunate that the legitimacy of his entire legacy, and by extension the movement of which he was a part, is being called into question in such a sloppy manner today. How disturbing that the vitally important issue of sexual violence is being deployed and distorted in the process. All of this in this crucible moment, what Dr. King referred to in his own time as the “fierce urgency of now.”

Barbara Ransby (@BarbaraRansby), a professor of history, gender and women’s studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” “Eslanda” and “Making All Black Lives Matter.”

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