The news broke (in England) at the beginning of last week that Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of the late Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. David Garrow, had unearthed a cache of new documents, many supposedly under strict lock-and-key at least until 2027, detailing some horrific cases of sexual activity by King, as many as forty such incidents, and one in which King stood by and watched and egged on a fellow black Baptist minister.
Here is the background of what happened: On January 31, 1977, Federal District Judge John Lewis Smith signed a court order that instructed the FBI to deposit all of its extensive electronic surveillance material—audio tapes, notes accompanying, etc.—with the National Archives, and sealing them for fifty years. However, as Garrow relates in a blockbuster article (nearly 8,000 words, with documentation) in the English journal, Standpoint:
…in recent months, hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries concerning King have silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore web site. This has occurred thanks to the provisions of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which mandated the public release of tens of thousands of government documents, many of which got swept up into congressional investigations of US intelligence agencies predating Judge Smith’s order. Winnowing the new King items from amidst the Archive’s 54,602 web-links, many of which lead to multi-document PDFs that are hundreds of pages long, entailed weeks of painstaking work.
In his long essay Garrow continues his explanation of how supposed-to-be secret documents and tapes became available to him:
Wiretap summaries…were supposed to be sealed pursuant to Judge Smith’s 1977 order, but by then the Department of Justice had forced the FBI to share many of its King records with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities, often called the Church Committee after the name of its chairman, Idaho Democrat Frank Church. In turn, all of the FBI’s documents relating to the Church Committee and the subsequent House Select Committee on Assassinations came to be covered by the 1992 Kennedy assassination records act.
Now, Garrow is not a conservative, no right wing fanatic out to “besmirch” the reputation of the late civil rights icon. Not at all.
He was—at least until this article and its implications—a highly respected, liberal author and academic, whose biography of King, Bearing the Cross (1986), won him praise and a Pulitzer, and has been used as the basis of film and screen adaptations.
But after his Standpoint essay, The Washington Post dropped the guillotine’s blade on him: he had said and written too much, he was no longer a “respectable” (that is, establishment liberal) historian, his findings were pronounced to be “dubious” and “of little value.” Indeed, the Post found a whole slew of its favored leftwing “historians” to literally denounce Garrow for his transgressions, even though he had written that he believed these new revelations would not damage King’s reputation [“No. Not at all. I don’t think that’s possible”].
The FBI recordings and notes document as many as forty “sexual episodes” involving King, a married man, with women, many of them “rough” and unnatural sex. But perhaps the most revolting occurred when King and a fellow black pastor, Logan Kearse, were staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., in early January 1964.
Professor David Greenberg of Rutgers University, writing in the highly-respected Politico, June 4, raises a number of serious questions about these new revelations and what they may portend not just for the “King legacy” and its meaning, but also for how Americans view their history. Unlike The Washington Post and other zealously leftist media outlets who either attempted to ignore the story, or else downplayed it as meaningless “speculation,” not based of substantiated or confirmed fact, Greenberg—no conservative himself—understands that this new documentation and its significance should be confronted. It could not simply be explained away or swept under the carpet and ignored.
Certainly, as Greenberg admits, many of our American heroes, despite their many virtues, have had “feet of clay,” have had their faults. Nevertheless, we have continued to admire them…at least, that has been the case until fairly recently, when, it seems the fanatical Neo-Marxist social justice warriors have sought to totally cleanse our culture and our country of practically all figures of historical significance, specifically if they were white and male. Now no one is safe from the howling and frenzied mob of brainwashed students and professional race-and-sex warriors.
And it is not just the statues to Confederate volunteers who went off to war and died for their states, such as the “Silent Sam” monument that was violently toppled by a crazed mob on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 20, 2018, or the equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee at Charlottesville, Virginia. Now literally the existence or names of hundreds of statues, plaques, schools, highways, and other symbols of historic figures, including of Founders such as Washington, Jefferson and James Madison, are severely threatened with disposal in the waste bin of history…and memory.
Will these new revelations affect King’s contemporary position in America, a position and symbolism revered not only by the political and cultural Left, but also by the pseudo-conservative establishment, who also claim his legacy?
Not likely. The King case is unique. As demonstrated by The Washington Post’s strenuous attempt to discredit Garrow and defend King as a kind of plaster saint, largely untouchable, but also illustrated by the reaction of the dominant Neoconservatives (on Fox News), King’s status will remain sacrosanct in the increasingly authoritarian culture and society where the new dogmas on race and sex reign supreme, and woe be to anyone who dares transgress or come close to denying them.
Witness an episode on the Laura Ingraham Show (May 29, 2019), after both the [London] Sunday Times and Daily Mail had first reported the revelations. Dinesh D’Souza, who fancies himself an historian of merit, but whose level of historical knowledge and comprehension is far less than that of my intelligent cocker spaniel Jasper, attempted to explain that all America’s black leaders historically were conservatives and Republicans: “[When I think of] The great black Americans of our history I think of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington," he said during an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News. “All of these were Republicans, they were conservatives….” And Martin Luther King was just the latest in that line: he had his faults, yes, but his “message of equality” was far greater and simply must be celebrated by all, including conservatives. He was, in short, an epochal giant who ushered in the final stage of completing that revolutionary message.
And in this sense, D’Souza like the dominant Neoconservative narrative, echoed another vaunted exponent of the King mythology, Jonah Goldberg (August 28, 2013):
“…the genius of King’s appeal to an ideal of colorblindness was deeply patriotic, rooted in the foundational principles of the republic….When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the American context, these are universal appeals. King pleaded for the fulfillment of America’s classically liberal revolution.” [Italics mine].
Which is a complete inversion of the American Founding and a more-or-less misreading, purposeful or not, of American history.
The symbolic canonization of Martin Luther King and the obligatory imposition of his cult on the nation was and is an action, collaborated in by both the zealous progressivist Left and the slightly less-Leftist Establishment conservative movement, with more dogmatic power and enforcement than any hierarch in Rome or any despot in Soviet Russia ever dreamed of, because it is more pervasive, far more than skin deep or simply a prophylactic, as the old Soviet power over Eastern Europe was for forty-five years. It is emblematic of not only the insistence on external assent in actions and words, but of a steady internalization which is equally monitored, the slightest variance from which brings excommunication, denunciation, loss of reputation and position, shunning, shaming, and even imprisonment.
This, then, is the legacy of King and those like him, those who protected him and glorified him, and the so-called civil rights transformation which opened the door wide for the aberrations and hideous results in racial and sexual questions we see and experience around us today.
No. Would that the Garrow revelations meant a serious re-examination of King, but they probably won’t. For there is literally no one of stature willing, no one fearless enough, to risk the obloquy and defamation to follow. We must, hopefully, wait for some future generation to do that.
This piece was previously posted on My Corner on June 8, 2019.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.