Last November, students protesting sexual violence at Morehouse College in Atlanta defaced a church named after the school’s most famous graduate. The Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel was spray-painted with the words “Practice what you preach Morehouse + end rape culture,” which police officers covered up with a brown tarp.
Today, the students might protest the sexual misconduct of Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Over the past few days, during commemorations of the 50th anniversary of his murder, we've heard a lot about King's prophetic vision of peace and social justice. There's been much less talk about his serial philandering, which reminds us that he was — like all of us — a flawed human being, not a demigod.
It also reminds us that standards of behavior change over time. The #MeToo movement has helped expose pervasive sexual harassment and violence by powerful men who should and must be held accountable for their actions. But we shouldn't read our own values onto people like King, who operated under different norms and rules.
Indeed, nobody in King's circle seemed to think there was anything wrong with his multiple affairs and dalliances. To the contrary, as historian Taylor Branch has written, King’s fellow ministers and civil rights activists viewed his sexual conduct as normal or even praiseworthy.
“They saw sexual adventure as a natural condition of manhood, of great preachers obsessed by loves, or of success, or of Negroes otherwise constrained by the white world,” Mr. Branch noted, “and they objected to King’s mistresses no more than to the scores of concubines who had soothed King David during the composition of his Psalms.”
According to Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s closest confidants, King attracted women “in droves, even when he didn’t intend to.” He spent 25 or so days of each month on the road, speaking and organizing; during those stressful trips, King told a friend, sex was “a form of anxiety reduction.” And as best we can tell, all of the sex was consensual.
But on the last day of King’s life, Abernathy claimed, his behavior crossed the line into verbal and physical violence. After delivering his now-iconic “Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968, King allegedly had sex with two different women: one at a friend’s house and another at the Lorraine Motel before a third woman showed up the next morning, hours before he would be killed, angry that King had been with other women instead of with her.
King and the third woman quarreled loudly. He “knocked her across the bed,” Abernathy wrote in his autobiography, “and for a moment they were in a full-blown fight, with King clearly winning.”
To be fair, other civil rights leaders who accompanied King to Memphis, including Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., have vehemently denied Abernathy’s version of these events. But at least one of the women King allegedly slept with that night — Georgia Davis Powers, Kentucky’s first African-American state senator — confirmed that she had a long-standing affair with King and had been with him at the Lorraine Motel before he died.
By our standards, King’s behavior would be judged boorish and possibly coercive. He used his status and influence to get sex from women. And if Abernathy’s account is correct, he used his physical power to abuse at least one of them.
But King lived in his time, not in ours. The term “sexual harassment” wasn’t even coined until the 1970s, when the feminist movement began to challenge it in a sustained fashion. The campaign continued into the 1980s, when newspapers exposed presidential candidate Gary Hart’s infidelities. And it took on new force in the 1990s, with the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and — of course — with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Most recently, the #MeToo movement has revealed sexual misconduct in every corner of American culture. But it makes no sense to hold Martin Luther King Jr. — or anyone else of his generation — to our own changing mores. Historians call that “presentism,” the imposition of contemporary ideas and assumptions upon historical figures who did not share them.
It’s a kind of cheating, really, because it evades the hard work of figuring out why people thought and behaved differently from us. And it’s also a form of self-flattery, because it allows us to pretend that we’re more enlightened — or woke — than we really are.
So, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, let’s be a bit more charitable to everyone who came before us. And let’s also remember the central message of King’s ministry: a radical love of your enemies, even if they’re hateful racists. Or, we might add, sexual harassers.
Jonathan Zimmerman (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).