That the Rev Martin Luther King often ministered to his female flock in ways more Bacchanal than Christian was widely known when he was still alive.
Nor was it a great secret that King was short of temper and, when he lost it, sometimes used his wife Coretta for a punching bag.
But both the scale of his transgressions and the sordid details weren’t known, which reduced all those stories to the level of reliable gossip at best. Now the details have been filled in, but no one wants to know.
David Garrow, King’s biographer, has found this the hard way. Having analysed thousands of documents in the FBI archives, he put together a picture that falls rather short of being iconic.
King had affairs with 40 to 45 women and sired an illegitimate child with one of them, which is pretty good going for a man of the cloth. He also drank in prodigious binges and organised drunken orgies in his hotel rooms, involving his friends, female parishioners and prostitutes.
The orgies, recorded by police transmitters, involved a dozen participants or more, and perpetrated there were what FBI assistant director Sullivan described as “acts of degeneracy and depravity”.
“When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated. King told her that to perform such an act would ‘help your soul’.”
Now what is Christian ministry if not helping people’s souls? It’s good to know that King took his pastoral duties seriously and that his aims were spiritual and not carnal.
FBI surveillance also shows that King treated consent as strictly optional. Once, for example, he attacked a female member of his staff in her flat and tore her clothes off in an apparent rape attempt.
On another occasion, FBI bugs picked up a rape that actually succeeded. King’s friend, Logan Kearse, also a Baptist pastor, invited King and his retainers to meet women, “parishioners of his church”, he had brought to Washington with him.
The female parishioners weren’t invited for strictly evangelical purposes. This is how the FBI summarised the tapes of the ensuing proceedings:
“The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her. King looked on, laughed and offered advice.”
There we’re talking about a serious crime, not the common-or-garden frivolity that’s these days considered criminal by the MeToo movement. I wonder why the FBI listeners didn’t intercede. Perhaps they didn’t want to blow the whole operation (no pun intended). Or else they weren’t listening in real time.
One way or another, the secular saint who has a public holiday named after him in the US, turns out to be not quite so saintly. Does this throw a shadow over his cause of fighting racial discrimination?
As a little aside, the word ‘discrimination’ now has only pejorative connotations. Left out is the essential modifier, without which the notion becomes ambiguous: ‘unjust’.
Left to its own devices, the word means something commendable: an ability to distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, moral and immoral, vice and virtue. Discriminating taste, for example, would enable a person to judge the quality of a musical performance or to know that Damien Hirst is no artist.
However, if a black actress were cast as Hamlet in a West End production (don’t think I’m kidding), one would be within one’s rights to support discrimination on the grounds of both race and sex.
Yet unjust discrimination is downright wrong and inexcusable. I had a black friend my age in Houston back in the ‘70s, who told me he had had to ride in the back of the bus as a child. I was as enraged as he was, even though I don’t think I ever saw a single bus during my 10 years in Houston.
Discriminating against people because their skin is a different colour is unjust, even as viewed in the difficult historical context of the US South. Injustice must be fought, and Dr King’s cause was good.
Nevertheless, I detested him. It’s a little idiosyncrasy of mine: I have a physiological aversion to loudmouth demagogues who choose rabble-rousing as a means to their end.
While Dr King’s cause was more noble than those of the equally gifted demagogues Trotsky and Hitler, aesthetically they were too similar for my comfort. I prefer people who have their dreams in private to those who scream about them to the multitudes (which is why I’m not, nor could ever be, a modern politician).
It was to a great extent because of King’s gushing, thunderous demagoguery that the originally good cause turned into something else. Rather than healing the racial wounds, it made them even worse.
While institutional manifestations of racism were stopped, the militancy of the civil rights movement and the ensuing culture of reverse discrimination (‘affirmative action’ in the American parlance) have created other social and cultural problems that are gnawing at America’s body politic.
Bad means can compromise the end, and a bad man can hurt a good cause. David Garrow’s research shows that King was indeed a bad man, and one would think that editors, supposedly truth seekers one and all, would be falling over themselves to publish his findings.
Yet one would be wrong to think that. For all American ‘liberal’ publications, including The Atlantic and The Washington Post turned Garrow’s essay down.
To them, King, good, bad or indifferent, isn’t a man. He’s a secular saint painted in the Byzantine style on an icon.
Besmirching his reputation, even – especially! – if the besmircher’s every word is true, thus falls into the category of apostasy. That makes the guilty party a heretic whose place is on the metaphorical pyre, not in the pages of reputable publications.
Such secular idolatry is always despicable, regardless of the idol’s human qualities. Upholding it by supressing the truth is even worse, much worse.
Unable to worship real God, people are these days trying to find profane surrogates, hoping that way to fill the spiritual vacuum in their lives. Yet no man, even one less flawed than King, can provide this service, and publications that perpetuate such cults are hitting our civilisation on its way down.
Anyway, if something happens and I’m unable to talk to you before 20 January, happy Martin Luther King Day!
P.S. Speaking of discriminating tastes, if any music lovers among you happen to be in London on 6 June, do attend the recital of my wife, Penelope Blackie. Take my word for it: nowhere in the world will the piano be played so beautifully on that day. For details: penelopeblackie.com