I’m an MLK scholar – and I’ll never be able to view King in the same light

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., has unearthed information that may forever change King’s legacy.

In an 8,000-word article published in the British periodical Standpoint Magazine on May 30, Garrow details the contents of FBI memos he discovered after spending weeks sifting through more than 54,000 documents located on the National Archive’s website. Initially sealed by court order until 2027, the documents ended up being made available in recent months through the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

The most damaging memos describe King witnessing a rape in a hotel room. Instead of stopping it, handwritten notes in the file say he encouraged the attacker to continue.

King was once thought of as a saint beyond reproach. After his death, it eventually emerged that he was a womanizer.

If these FBI memos are accurate – and I have good reason to believe they are – we now have to ask the unthinkable: Was King an abuser? And what might this mean for his legacy?

Other outlets balk

The FBI files contained some other notable information.

Garrow writes that King may have fathered a daughter with Dolores Evans, a girlfriend of his who is still alive and living in Los Angeles. The memos also detail the closeness of his relationship with Dorothy Cotton, a longtime associate of King’s in Atlanta and director of his organization’s Citizen Education Program. It appears that the two were romantically involved.

Many of these transcripts were based on audiotapes that are still sealed under a court order.

Garrow had taken his findings to other outlets, but each decided against publishing them. The Guardian initially agreed to take the story, edited the piece, paid Garrow for his work and then decided the story was too risky to run. Editors at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they didn’t want to run the piece because they couldn’t listen to the actual recordings the documents were based on. Some historians have questioned Garrow’s choice to publish the content of the memos and transcripts without listening to the recordings, and have pointed out that the FBI had spent years trying to undermine King.

However, I’ve gotten to know Garrow and his work over the last 11 years while conducting my own extensive research into King’s use of Langston Hughes’ poetry. Garrow has the same reputation among historians as Bob Woodward has among journalists – that is to say, I have no reason to doubt Garrow’s intentions or the accuracy of his article.

King’s sexual exploits long known

Soon after King’s death, several members of his inner circle, including Ralph Abernathy, started publicly discussing King’s philandering.

At the time, many justified his behavior by saying it was no different from the biblical David writing his psalms by day, only to be relieved at night by his concubines. Others pursued a line of defense extended to John F. Kennedy: What someone does in their own time isn’t the public’s business.

Garrow had outlined several of King’s marital infelicities in his 1986 biography of King. But he often spared the names of the women involved to protect their identities. Finally, in 2010, Kentucky State Sen. Georgia Davis Powers recounted her intimate relationship with King in her book “I Shared the Dream.”

But what has just emerged takes things to a whole new level: It now seems that King failed to stop a rape.

Memos detail a rape

During FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s 48-year tenure, the agency greatly expanded the scope of its surveillance activities – often at the behest of sitting presidents. While Harry Truman worried the FBI was becoming a “citizen spy system,” presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson eagerly gave Hoover permission to gather information on political enemies.

Starting in late 1963 and continuing until his death, the FBI had been tracking King’s every move. FBI surveillance of King began with the goal of uncovering the relationship of King and his closest advisers, like Stanley Levison, with communists. But over time, the FBI started to fixate on King’s sexual exploits. In an era of lenient surveillance laws, J. Edgar Hoover was able to gain unmitigated access into King’s personal life.