It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.
And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.
One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. It was dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.
This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)
It’s been widely shared enough to provoke a furious denunciation from a columnist for the Black-oriented site, “The Root.”
It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.
King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.
No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”
In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide.
A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.
The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”
King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.
All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?
And a related question is, doesn’t this behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?
I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.
First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.
Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.
Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.
Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.
I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.
SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.
The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour, starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:
“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population that is eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.
“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”
Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:
“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”
By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.
Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.
There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.
One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.
With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.
She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.
I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.
But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She needed to see him. That, she said, was why she came.
Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–
But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.
And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.
But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:
A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.
I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.
And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.
As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.
I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.
“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.
She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.
That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.
But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)
But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?
To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.
I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.
At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)
And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)
But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.
In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.
King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.
How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.
To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.
This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.
Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.
But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.
Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.
I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.
Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.
Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”
At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.
Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?
Do I need to breathe?
* * *
Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King that evening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.
Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.
The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”
Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse.
Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:
“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter
Take warning from me
And don’t you go marching
With the N-A-A-C-P.
For they’ll rock you and roll you
And shove you into bed.
And if they steal your nuclear secret
You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”
Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.
This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.
I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch. The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.
Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.
He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.
In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.
I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act, was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.
What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?
Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.
I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures; Dr. King as a sinner makes sense. And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.
For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.
That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?
Anyway, more disturbing to me personally than King’s philandering was the revelation that he plagiarized much of his graduate work and his doctoral dissertation, a serious intellectual infraction which is now well-established. Maybe that’s just me.
We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.