Martin Luther King Jnr has fallen.
A large number of archived documents have been released by the FBI revealing that behind the oratory and political fortitude of Martin Luther King Jnr was an unfaithful husband and serial adulterer. Over the years I have heard people speak of MLK’s wanderings, but it appears as though these rumours were not only true, but they were only the tip of the iceberg.
Pulitzer Prize winner, David Garrow, who has also authored a biography of King in 1986, has been sifting through the material.
“I always thought there were 10-12 other women,” he said. “Not 40-45.” He now believes that in the #MeToo age of revulsion for sexual harassment and assault, evidence of King’s indifference to rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible”.
Archive tape recordings show that the MLK had sexual encounters with dozens of women, including with prostitutes, pressuring female parishioners from a friend’s church, orgies involving multiple people, and allegedly watching a fellow Baptist pastor rape a woman inside a hotel room.
According to reporting in The Times,
“One white prostitute told the FBI she had been drawn into a threesome with King and a black woman. Visiting Las Vegas in April 1964, King allegedly took the two women to his room at the Sands hotel, then phoned one of his associates and told him to “get your damned ass down here because I have a beautiful white broad here”. The trio had sex before the friend showed up and took his turn while King “watched the action from a close-by position”, according to the FBI account. Then the prostitute said she was “getting scared as they were pretty drunk and using filthy language”. She told an FBI interviewer it was “the worst orgy I’ve ever gone through”.
“At one point, senior FBI officials sent an incriminating tape and an anonymous letter to King, calling him “an evil abnormal beast” and warning him that “your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies” were “on the record for all time”. The letter ended with a barely veiled suggestion that King should commit suicide “before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation”. When King learnt of the tape’s contents, he is said to have told one aide over a wiretapped phone line that the FBI was “out to get me, harass me, break my spirit”.
The read in The Times is truly troubling and awful.
There will be some people today who will gloat over the fall of Martin Luther King Jnr. Before doing so they should remember Obadiah 1:12 and watch their steps closely lest someone uncovers their hidden secrets.
“You should not gloat over your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble.”
Many more people, quite possibly millions, will be stunned and shocked upon hearing the stories and allegations that have been released concerning Martin Luther King’s private life. He is considered one the greatest Americans, with one of only a handful who has a statue in their honour near the National Mall in Washington DC. MKL is considered of the most important voices of the 20th Century. Especially in the United States, but even here in Australia many people look to his words and example in the fight against racism and inequality. His sermons are often recited and quoted. Very few of us can hear MLK declare, “I have a dream” and not be moved.
Can a man who spoke with such eloquence and power also be so deeply flawed? Flawed is the wrong word, egregiously sinful and morally reprehensible is more accurate. Can such a man have been used by God? How does a nation dismantle the memory of a great citizen once he has been exposed for hypocrisy and possibly even criminal conduct relating to sex charges?
Perhaps some people will feel the need to dismiss this history. After all, is what he did so uncommon in America and Australia? Doesn’t the United States have a sitting President who is known for his sexual exploits? And what of Bill Clinton and JFK? Other people may acknowledge his wrongdoing but dampen the reality by explaining it away with a long list of possible mental ailments or frustrated life moments.
What will the #metoo movement do with these horrible revelations? Will MKL be excused or will his name be treated with the same contempt as other perpetrators of sexual assault and those guilty of derogatory treatment of women?
I cannot speak for America but one thing is certain, if Martin Luther King was alive today and his private life known, he could not serve as pastor of a church, nor preach from any pulpit, except in perhaps the most ‘progressive’ of churches. The reason is simple, his character fails the test laid out in the New Testament. Inspirational words are easily undone, even truthful words lose their influence when the speaker betrays them.
I suspect this is going to be a very difficult and complex conversation. Can a society hold onto the good that he achieved, and even be thankful for it, while being honest about MLK’s grave failings as a man, husband, pastor, and social leader?
There are two grave mistakes we can make in light of this news. First, we can conclude that none of this matters. I want to argue that it does matter. It matters that women were used and abused to satisfy his urges. It matters because marital faithfulness matters. It matters because the life of a Christian preacher should not betray the message. Is this not one of the cries that the secular world is continually making in light of all manner of clerical abuses?
The second mistake to avoid is that of vaporising MLK’s legacy altogether. My guess is that the Bible will offer a helpful directive if only we have the humility and wisdom to listen.
For example, which King should MLK be likened too? Is he more like Cyrus or David? The distinction is important. Cyrus was an unbelieving King from Persia who had a thing for killing and conquering. God chose to work through him for the good of others, and Cyrus even acknowledged this fact. David, on the other hand, was a man after God’s own heart and yet he sinned profoundly. He let his private parts turn his attention, he committed adultery and then had the husband of the woman murdered. David’s fall was of biblical proportions, and his eventual repentance was real. God never excused David’s actions, and in fact, the repercussions were terrible and long term, but nonetheless, God also showed grace and worked through David to bring about the most sublime promise the world has ever been told.
My point is this, God can choose a pagan King and work through him for good, and God can choose a righteous King and work through him despite his dreadful actions. In both instances the work accomplished was noble and right without ever diminishing the wrong. Is Martin Luther King more like Cyrus or David? I don’t know and I don’t think we need to choose, for God knows. God knows the final orientation of Martin Luther’s heart.
Every statue will build and every hero we salute, will eventually fall foul of scrutiny because even the greatest are deeply sinful at heart. The world sees total depravity but Christians believe in it.
Ultimately pedestals tumble down and monuments crack under the weight of expectations. We are left with only one and he too is a King. This Christian Gospel is not offered to the self-righteous but to the unrighteous. Christianity is not for great ones who have all of life sorted, but for those who mourn over their sins and turn to a loving God. Thank God He does not ignore the real us and thank God that in love God’s Son took the full baggage that is ours and was crucified in our place. At the end of the day, we all need this truest King.
The King is dead. Long live the King.