CLOSE FRIENDS of Martin Luther King Jr. say Georgia Powers is a liar.
Ms. Powers, the first African American to serve in the Kentucky legislature, says she had a year-long love affair with Dr. King. In fact, she says in her biography, King spent his last night with her at the Memphis motel where he was murdered the next day, April 4, 1968.
"When they put Dr. King into the ambulance, I instinctively began climbing in to go with him," Ms. Powers writes in her recently published book, "I Shared the Dream."
"Andy Young gently pulled me back. 'No, Senator,' he said. 'I don't think you want to do that.' "
Andrew Young, a former member of Congress, Atlanta mayor and King confidant, insists that this pointed and poignant scene escapes his recollection.
"I've played through in my mind the incidents surrounding the assassination, and her picture never comes up," he said in a report filed by the Associated Press.
The Rev. Hosea Williams, one of King's most trusted associates, went much further.
"I'm willing and ready to stake my life that Ms. Powers is telling a baldfaced lie," he said.
But the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, another of King's allies in the civil rights movement, seems to have supported Ms. Powers' claim in his memoirs, published five years ago. In his book, Abernathy said King had cheated on his wife, and that he had been with "a black woman . . . a member of the Kentucky legislature" the night before he was killed.
Maybe Georgia Powers is telling the truth. Maybe not. Likely we'll never know for certain.
What if she were somehow able to prove herself truthful? That would remove the liar label. But it would only underscore a much greater sin: Ms. Powers' aggressively obscene lack of discretion.
The popular term for Ms. Powers' alleged revelation is "kiss and tell," which only demonstrates the poverty of the English language. "Kiss and tell" is a silly, frivolous-sounding phrase. The actual transgression is usually anything but silly and frivolous.
Granted, I have not read "I Shared the Dream." Perhaps Ms. Powers explains somewhere in it why she had to tell the world about her affair with King. Perhaps she recounts a long, painful process by which she weighed the harm she would cause against any good her revelation would bring.
Thus far, no such account has accompanied news stories of the revelation. Any intended good remains a mystery. The harm, however, is obvious.
King's widow, Coretta Scott King, is still alive, working in her husband's name as she has since he was killed, to keep his dream for civil rights. How nice for her to be asked now about allegations of a 26-year-old love affair.
Also harmed is King's image as a political and philosophical role model for generations of black and white Americans who share his commitment to nonviolent activism.
King's behavior behind closed bedroom doors is not the reason he is admired and emulated by millions. His struggle for racial equality is. But that struggle can only be tainted by stories about his private improprieties.
Any time allegations or revelations such as Ms. Powers' surface, the common rationale is: It's dangerous to deify anybody. If a public figure cheated on his wife, we ought to know. It will give us a clearer picture of who he was.
This is a tidy and reasonable-sounding argument. But it's a deceptive one.
If Dr. King's power came from a ferocious public stance for marital fidelity, it would be right and fair for the public to know about any alleged affairs.
If Ms. Powers claimed that the peace-preaching King beat her, it would be the public's business.
But any wrong that Martin Luther King may have committed with Georgia Powers, 26 years ago, was a most private wrong. It is no one's business in 1995.
Stephanie Salter is a San Francisco Examiner columnist.