Yesterday, in British magazine Standpoint, Martin Luther King Jr. biographer David Garrow penned a rather explosive piece revealing previously undisclosed FBI files that detailed shocking events in the life of the legendary civil rights activist. According to the article written by Garrow, King was not only a prolific philanderer, but also an abuser of many women and someone who reportedly laughed while a friend raped a woman.
The weight and validity of the FBI documents raise the first point of contention in the midst of this publication. The files were observations made by an FBI that was under specific instruction to make King look as bad as possible. J. Edgar Hoover was, at the time, convinced that King was a full-blown communist with intentions to turn the citizens of the United States into communists as well.
In fact, when the details of these FBI files became available on the National Archives public website in late 2017, Garrow stated to the Washington Post,“The number one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of doing this, is just because you see it in a top-secret document, just because someone had said it to the FBI, doesn’t mean it’s all accurate.”It is only now that the noted King historian has decided the details of King’s salacious hidden life merits attention and ridicule.
The documents were ordered to be sealed in 1977 by a district judge for 50 years—a date which will officially expire in 2027. A representative for the National Archives stated to me yesterday, “The writer [David Garrow] links to documents released under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which are available through the National Archives and Record Administration’s public website. The research and any interpretation or conclusions in the article are those of the writer/researcher.”
But whether or not the allegations are true, the work King did as a civil rights activist is now in danger of cancellation. Like all historical figures, he was a human man. That is not an excuse for horrific behavior, but a reminder that the faults of our heroes do not define the good work they did.
King’s words are particularly poignant today, in a time that outrage culture and identity politics have replaced his calls for equality and harmony. From his famous “I Have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
These ideas seem to have gone by the wayside as people are valued by their sex, race, religion, and political beliefs to an extreme degree in the modern age. Regardless of the validity of modern accusations against heroes of the past, it is important to remember the gravity of the good work that was done.
Should King’s legacy and extraordinary work in the advancement and establishment of civil rights for all Americans come under fire because of these 50-year-old FBI documents, we will all lose.
Ellie Bufkin is the co-host of the movie podcast "Flix It" and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Ellie worked in the wine industry as a journalist and sommelier. You can follow her on Twitter @ellie_bufkinand on Instagram @exsommellie.