Accounts of the civil rights hero’s infidelity and voracious sexual appetite date back to his lifetime, but the latest accusations, presented by his esteemed biographer David Garrow on the basis of FBI surveillance tapes, won’t disappear neatly under the carpet.
They are too graphic, including orgies and boasts about founding the “International Association for the Advancement of Pussy-Eaters.” They are too criminal, cheering a fellow pastor as he allegedly raped a woman in a hotel room. And most importantly, they are the first ones to surface since #MeToo.
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Some on the right have called for vengeance, just as for historic figures, some of them dead for centuries like Robert E Lee, who have been punished for failing to adhere to present day liberal views. And celebrities, who have been branded as anything from sex pests to rapists to pedophiles on much thinner evidence.
So, it’s only fair that we cancel Martin Luther King Jr Day, rename all the streets and schools named after him, take down the statues, and rewrite the textbooks. No more biopics.
But what if instead, we break the cycle of cultural violence?
Surely this is the moment when even the most passionate cancel-happy #TimesUp activists can admit that King’s contribution to the civil rights movement, both as a person and a symbol, is such that no amount of private misdeeds will detract from it.
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And perhaps as well as learning not to judge too harshly, Americans will be wary of erecting more idols. After all, we have been here before with Mahatma Gandhi’s naked sleeping with teen relatives, Mother Teresa’s refusal to apply modern medicine that could have saved lives, Nelson Mandela’s role in violent resistance, Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule, and even MLK’s own undeniable plagiarism in academic texts and speeches.
This is an opportunity not only to step back from the Manichean hysteria, but perhaps even a chance to reach across the political divide tearing America apart daily. By treating MLK with humanity and a sense of proportion, the same generosity could then be extended to other “sinners,” even those who do not share the same values.
MLK was flawed, Ronald Reagan was flawed, as were John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Malcolm X, and George W. Bush. Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Brett Kavanaugh and Barack Obama and other recent media punching bags are not personifications of evil, but merely public servants trying to do what they believe is best for the country.
But this reads like a naive fantasy.
This is what will more likely happen: excuses will be made for King – the subconsciously racist lower standards of sexual propriety will be applied to a black man. Or perhaps doubt will be cast on the veracity and provenance of the information; focus shifted to the villainy of the FBI that traced MLK’s every step, but did not protect him or his alleged victims.
At worst, MLK’s reputation will take a battering but retain its overall shape. But most likely of all, the impolitic truths will be double-thought out of existence, both acknowledged and forgotten at the same time. Congress will again keep official full FBI records that should have been long opened – and that could confirm or disprove Garrow’s claims – sealed until 2027 and beyond, prolonging the timer on the bomb.
And the same unyielding standards will continue to be applied from the vanguard of the left to the usual targets on the right. The political imperatives are too strong. Because when the big social confrontations are at stake, the heroes must always be saints, and the enemies devils.
By Igor Ogorodnev