Immoral Conduct and Moral Witness
Does the sexual depravity of Martin Luther King, Jr. negate his work and witness in the cause of racial justice?
About the Author
Like many Americans, we have long admired the work and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership and courage in a supremely just cause have inspired our own work. What, then, are we to make of recent revelations that he exploited his fame and status to have affairs with countless women, treating them as mere sex objects, and perhaps even stood by laughing as a colleague committed a rape in his hotel room?
We will not hide the fact that we have been devastated by these revelations. Nor will we pretend that they have not lowered King in our estimation. Having said that, we have never been under the illusion that he was faultless or sinless. It has long been known that he was sometimes unfaithful to his wife Coretta. While we have not excused his adulteries, we believed that they represented the succumbing to human weakness of a man who was frequently on the road away from his wife and family and who was, for a variety of reasons, attractive to young women. We also believed that when he sinned he knew he was sinning, did not approve of his own conduct or recommend it to others, and was genuinely—if, alas, only temporarily—remorseful about having veered from the path of virtue.
On these latter points, it now seems clear that we were wrong. As he traveled the country, he sought out women to use for nothing more than sexual pleasure; he took advantage of his stature and fame to seduce them; he participated in orgies; and, as we’ve noted, there is evidence that he allowed a colleague to force himself on an unwilling woman—indeed, a woman who objected to being asked to perform an immoral act.
All of this is to be condemned. It is to be condemned unequivocally—no ifs, ands, or buts. It was against the biblical Christian faith that King presented himself as holding and in whose name he spoke against racial injustice. It was against the natural moral law, which he rightly invoked in denouncing segregation and Jim Crow. It was against the Gospel proclaimed then and now by faithful Christians of all traditions and, with special force, by those of the Black church tradition which King inherited from his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.
As was pointed out by the late historian Eugene D. Genovese, the principal philosophical difference between King, Jr. and King, Sr. was the former’s embracing of theological liberalism—especially the denial of the historicity and literal meaning of Christian doctrines such as the Resurrection of Christ. Were King Jr.’s personal moral delinquencies underwritten in part by this theological liberalism? It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty. Yet, if we look at the Christian denominations that over the past several decades have abandoned traditional Christian moral teachings—especially on questions of marriage, sexual morality, and the sanctity of human life—they are the traditions into which theological liberalism made the biggest inroads decades before.
By contrast, Christian traditions that have resisted theological liberalism have remained faithful to traditional Christian moral teachings, including the belief that marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife and that sex outside the bond of marriage is morally impermissible, and the teaching that the life of the child in the womb and that of the frail elderly person must be protected against the crimes of abortion and euthanasia.
If a self-identified Christian believes that the Resurrection was a purely “spiritual” experience, not a physical, historical (“photographable”) reality, it is statistically more likely than not that the individual will also hold views about marriage and sexuality that are far closer to those of secular progressives than they are to those of traditional Christian believers—such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. That does not mean that the individual will behave in the debauched manner in which we now have reason to believe Martin Luther King, Jr. behaved; nor does it mean that he or she cannot or will not condemn King’s conduct. It does, however, mean that the individual will have trouble explaining what, if anything, is wrong with any type of sexual conduct so long as there is no coercion or deception. It goes without saying, alas, that being a member, or even a member of the clergy, of a faith that has remained loyal to traditional teachings about marriage, sexuality morality, and human dignity is no guarantee that one will actually believe or consistently practice what one’s faith preaches. Clerical sex scandals such as those in the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention make this all too apparent.
Recent revelations about the frequency and seriousness of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sexual misconduct were brought to the public’s attention by the left-wing scholar David Garrow, a noted biographer of King and historian of the civil rights movement. Garrow is an admirer of King, and he is certainly not a racist. His source of information about King’s wrongdoing was information in FBI files that had been gathered at a time when King was being wrongfully surveilled and harassed by the Bureau under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. There is no question that racism was among the motives for that surveillance and harassment. It never should have happened. And yet, as Garrow has observed, the truth is the truth, even if it was brought to light for bad reasons and by immoral means. Perhaps one could be forgiven in a case like this for wishing that one didn’t know the truth. But once known, there is no pretending one doesn’t know it.
Does knowing the truth about King, however much it diminishes our esteem for him, negate his work and witness in the cause of racial justice? This is the crucial question, and the answer is “No.”
As we’ve noted, the truth is the truth. It doesn’t cease being the truth because of who spoke it or for what reasons. What King said about racism and segregation was true: they are contrary to the biblical teaching that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is, as such, the bearer of inherent and equal dignity; they violate the natural law—the law “written on the hearts of even the Gentiles who have not the law of Moses,” but who, by the light of reason, can know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice; and they contradict our nation’s foundational commitments, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. At a time when these truths were ignored, and even denied, King proclaimed them boldly.
And this brings us to a point very much in King’s favor, a point that must not be forgotten, even in our sorrow and anger. In proclaiming these truths, he exercised and modeled for Americans of all races tremendous courage—moral and physical. His safety and very life were constantly under threat. He knew he would likely be murdered—indeed, he predicted his assassination. That he had a dark side—a very dark side—does not make him less than a martyr, someone who was targeted and killed for speaking truth and fighting for justice even in the face of intimidation and threats.
Shocked by what has recently come to light, some may call for monuments to King to be taken down and for boulevards, schools, and the like that are named in his honor to be renamed. We ask our fellow citizens not to go down this road. The monuments and honors are obviously not for King’s objectification and exploitation of women, but for his leadership and courage in the fight for racial justice. Everyone understands that. Future generations will understand it too. Just as we ought not to strip the slaveholding George Washington of honors but continue to recognize his courage and leadership in the American Revolution and the crucial role he played in establishing an enduring democratic republic, we should not strip King of honors for his wrongdoing. While acknowledging his faults and their gravity, we should continue to recognize and celebrate all he did to make our nation a truly democratic republic—one in which the principles and promise of the American founding are much more fully realized.
About the Author
REV. EUGENE F. RIVERS
Rev. Eugene F. Rivers is Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom