Saturday Sep 21

Back Story: Martin Luther King: The Movement is Always More Important Than the Man


The headline in the New York Times was straightforward: “An Article on Dr. King Creates a Furor.” The subhead was a both a warning and a raised eyebrow of the story to follow saying, “The biographer David Garrow uncovered F.B.I. documents that some scholars question.”

Mmmmm, I thought. What’s up with this? I read the article and found it confusing and contradictory, but knew it was important. I tore the page out of the June 5th paper to re-read and try to understand more fully. My first thoughts were simple.

The FBI?

Who can trust a word about what they would say about anyone, much less Rev. Martin Luther King, where there had been a long record of sketchy, likely racist, domestic surveillance? And, David Garrow? He was a King scholar and Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography of King, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that I had read with interest and respect. Was he not a consistently reliable and credible source on King and the civil rights movement?

The backstory in short was a piece that Garrow had published in a smallish magazine in the United Kingdom, called Standpoint entitled, “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King.” The subhead on this essay was a neon blasting potboiler, “Newly-revealed FBI documents portray the great civil rights leader as a sexual libertine who ‘laughed’ as a forcible rape took place.” What the heck! Sure is a lot of smoke, so we had better investigate the fire.

It’s actually not easy to do that. My first Google search meant shoveling through one right-wing hoot-and-holler, “I told you so” attack after another on King directly and by inference the whole civil rights project. Interspersed with that were questions about Garrow and his motives, questions about whether this was a coverup because the Times had reported the difficulty Garrow had found in getting the piece published in the USA, and the occasional pro-and-con from feminists, some arguing that they could never see King in the same light again. Wow!

Three or four pages into the search I couldn’t find the actual Standpoint article.

I had to rejigger the search as not the King article in Standpoint but Standpoint and King to finally find a link to read the almost 8000-word piece.

It’s not pretty to read, and that’s not entirely because it details what might be categorized as “uncomfortable truths.” Partially, that’s because, despite Garrow’s assurances, it is still hard to tell if some of this is based on FBI opinion, racial and moral bias, or true facts. We won’t know at the earliest until 2027 when the actual tape recordings are released and likely not even then because a Garrow-like historian will have to go through the same painstaking review that Garrow undertook in order to make this public. Given the rhubarb this is creating, we at least know it is already on the calendar for some scholars, whether for good or evil.

It’s a matter of historical record that King was a philanderer, so that’s not news, but it was kind of icky to have Garrow name names and make us boudoir witnesses and junior G-men. It felt like an evasion without permission of the women, either silent or now dead. I didn’t like that, whether true or false. I felt the same way about his naming – or worse speculating – on the names of ministers and others with King on these escapades, whether as participants or FBI informants. Raising the prospects of an out of wedlock daughter down to the detail of when she was married, was just plain offensive. Is that how historians work now? FBI opinions and Garrow opinions are still just opinions, but with grave consequences.

The other part that went way past creepy for me was Garrow’s big reveal about King getting money on the side:

…King’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, and when King’s IRS file arrived in mid-March, it contained a previously unreported bombshell: in 1957 and 1958, Stanley Levison, who had first met King only at the very end of 1956, had arranged for King to receive a total of $10,000 in cash gifts—the equivalent of $87,000 in 2019 dollars—from himself and a close friend, 70-year old Alice Rosenstein Loewi. In early 1961, the IRS had subjected King’s late 1950s’ returns to “investigative scrutiny” and determined that he owed an additional $1,556.02 but had had no fraudulent intent.

Garrow’s problem wasn’t ethical either because King didn’t hide the gift from the IRS, he just didn’t calculate his taxes correctly. Garrow doesn’t raise the question of whether that was appropriate in terms of the SCLC or whether they ever knew he was making money on the side. No, his issue is that Levison was seen by the FBI as a communist, sufficiently for them to wiretap him as part of their Cold War protocol, and that even as Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, was trying to convince King to disassociate from Levison because of his possible ties to the Communist Party, King was taking money from him. Garrow seems to wonder if that wasn’t a bigger issue compromising King from the left and making King what the right would call a “commie stooge.”

Garrow wasn’t wrong to do the work. The part of the article that details the determination of the FBI and their role her is frightening, and Garrow is all over that story. Was this really the way we roll in America when we oppose change? Seems so. Garrow did his job, but his judgment seems wrong about what to do and how to handle what he found. It should have been made public, but he has not written this well or right.

This cannot excuse the horrific accusation that King was a willing witness to rape at Washington’s Willard Hotel. Garrow is right that King even being a passive participant in rape erodes part of his legacy. This is another dimension way past his being unfaithful to his wife. It is impossible to simply say that there were cultural differences fifty or sixty years ago, because it was never all right for men, especially those with power and influence, which King and other ministers had as ministers, as well as leaders, to relate to women so clearly as sex objects. Women, whether feminists or not, reading this piece or a fuller story in years to come, should not see King the same way. His clay feet will have to be seen as clearly as any monument.

The paradox not addressed by Garrow or any others lining up on different sides of this controversy is that it was always a mistake to view the civil rights movement through the lens of any one leader, whether Martin Luther King or anyone else. History is better understood when looking at people and how they move for change, rather than any individual or group of leaders who emerge from their struggle. That is not to say that King and others did not make contributions or exercise courage and commitment in a critical and historic time.

Nevertheless, we have to always understand that it’s never the man, but always the movement that makes the difference. It is never the leaders, but the organization that must prevail if it allows people to fight and win. Nothing and no one is ever perfect, but none of that can ever change whether or not the cause is just, the voice is clear, and victory is essential.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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