For most of my life, I had been taught certain things about Martin Luther King, Jr. – specifically that he was a communist and an adulterer. Looking back, I wasn’t confident that my sources told me the truth or that those characterizations painted an honest picture of King.
I decided to study the life of Dr. Martin Luther King for myself. As part of my study, I listened to the audiobook version of Joseph Rosenbloom’s Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours. I also read one of King’s earliest biographies, Let the Trumpet Sound, by Stephen B. Oates.
In hindsight, a better choice would have been one of David Garrow’s three biographies of King. Oates’ biography is thorough enough. Questions have been raised about plagiarism in his book, but that has more to do with the “gotcha” culture of acadamia than any legitimate problem with citations in his material. Oates answers these charges here, for reference. I got the overall impression that Oates was a bit too enamored with King to tackle some of the controversy surrounding his life. Nonetheless, I am glad I read this biography since it gave me a better perspective of King’s life and legacy.
When I finished those two books, I checked out from the library two documentaries about King’s life. The better documentary came from The History Channel and featured Tom Brokaw. The footage in that film included some of the most important events in King’s life. I enjoyed watching video of the things I read about in King’s biography.
What follows is a rundown of the things I took away from my research. I know that we have little tolerance for wordy online articles, but I hope you will “endure to the end!” Perhaps this article will help you better understand one of the truly iconic characters in American history.
He was a great man.
No man is without his flaws, and King had some glaring shortcomings. But King is worthy of honor, and I am glad to celebrate him.
By design, some men rise above the crowd. Martin Luther King, Jr was one such man. He would have been famous and wildly successful at whatever he attempted. He was a driven man; he had tremendous talent; he had a magnetic personality. The fact that he possessed so many marks of greatness makes it all the more remarkable that he dedicated his life to the civil rights movement. King did not launch the civil rights movement. Men like W.E.B DuBois and others fought for black people’s rights for many years before MLK came along. King drew our attention to the movement, put it in the national spotlight, and forced America to take note. It was the sheer force of his personality, his presence, that caught America’s attention.
He was a brilliant man.
He entered college while still fifteen years old and earned a Ph.D. when he was twenty-five. He wrote his thesis on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” He studied nearly all the great philosophers and almost all the Great Books. He wrote at least four books in his lifetime, the first while still in his twenties. He was conversant in all the great thinkers of Western Civilization, often quoting these philosophers in his sermons. He had a grasp on the nuances of the philosophies that influence our modern era. He knew these philosophies well enough that he could discuss them at length and explain his disagreements.
He was one of the last great orators.
It has been said that Martin Luther King was one of the last orators to use the grand style properly. I do not believe there has been a man with more natural oratorical skill since King died.
He was a passionate speaker, a passion that could only come from one who spoke from the heart what he believed to be right. His voice was like a great choir, as a whole symphony, as the voice of many waters. His words were powerful. He had the unique ability to express what he was thinking in the most straightforward terms. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” still qualifies as one of the great essays in American history. His “I have a dream speech” is pure genius. When King delivered that speech, he turned his notes over, and he poured out his heart to nearly one million people gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
But I believe He gave his most remarkable speech the night before he died. Delivered in the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the “Mountaintop” speech came from his heart, without a scrap of notes.
He fought passionately for his people.
Whether you approve or disapprove of King, you have to admit that he was a champion for his people. In the middle of the 20th century, blacks in America lived under a suffocating cloud of oppression based purely on their skin color. King could have made a comfortable life for himself and his family in Boston, where he was offered a prestigious post in a respectable church. Instead, he intentionally returned to the South after college, taking a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. Having grown up nearby in Atlanta, King knew firsthand the depravity of segregation that characterized the South. He chose to go there so that he could suffer alongside his people. And he did suffer.
MLK’s life was no “flowery bed of ease.” He rejected the easy life, choosing to take a minimal salary and living in a modest home. Time after time, he willingly put himself in harm’s way to demonstrate the extreme hatred directed at black people.
After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, King believed he would be murdered. At nearly every turn, he saw the hatred, he heard the threats, and he experienced the violence of white people who rejected his cause. Still, he carried on in the fight for the rights of black people.
After King won some of his major civil rights battles in the South, he began to address the more subtle racism that characterized large cities like Chicago and Detroit. King took the unprecedented step of renting a flat in a Chicago ghetto and moving his family to live with him there. He did not do this in a grandstanding fashion, and the landlords did not at first realize who had rented their apartment. When they discovered who he was, these landlords scrambled to improve conditions in that ghetto. But King had made his point.
MLK later commented that he experienced some of the most extreme racism of his life in Chicago.
I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago. (Oates, p. 413)
The hatred King encountered in Chicago made him believe that he would be murdered there. Yet, he fearlessly led his people to march through some of the most virulently racist neighborhoods both in Cicero and on Chicago’s southwest side. He determined to put that racism on full display.
Martin Luther King was a champion for his people. He set a worthy example of self-sacrifice, a willingness to suffer and risk everything to take up his people’s cause and improve their conditions. More than fifty years after his murder, we ought to recognize the self-giving love of this great man.
He was an immoral man.
No fair treatment of King’s life can gloss over this fact. MLK had mistresses all over America from Washington, DC to California, from Chicago to Atlanta. Stephen Oates offers the lame excuse that King was such a passionate man, and had such a need for affection and affirmation, that he couldn’t help himself. While King was plagued by guilt for his many infidelities, his sexual sins are inexcusable. There has been a serious effort on the Internet to purge out this fact. But this is a part of the King legacy.
David Garrow has analyzed the information available to us and written an extensive summary on this issue. His article, “The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King,” includes graphic details, so I won’t link to it here.
In 1989, King’s closest friend and associate, Ralph Abernathy, spoke of King’s serial adultery in his autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Abernathy did not present this material in a “kiss-and-tell” betrayal fashion. He defended King for these things. Nevertheless, men who profited handsomely from King’s legacy – race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and friends like Andrew Young, immediately went on record to repudiate Abernathy’s account. They held a press conference by the grave of MLK, denying these claims and suggesting that Abernathy had lost his faculties when he had brain surgery. This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In the years since Abernathy’s book, his claims have been confirmed.
Georgia Davis Powers initially denied Abernathy’s claim that she had been one of King’s lovers. She later detailed their year-long affair in her autobiography. King spent the last night of his life in her bed. Dorothy Cotton, one of King’s closest associates at the SCLC, also denied any inappropriate relationship with King for most of her life. Yet, she had been his lover and mistress for many years.
Abernathy claimed that King spent the last night of his life with three women. Though other King associates, including Jesse Jackson, vehemently denied his account, that claim has been almost totally vindicated. According to Abernathy, the last of those three women had a physical altercation with King in the hotel room he shared with Abernathy, with King slapping the woman around the room. Dorothy Cotton finally admitted that she was that woman. However, she neither confirmed nor denied the altercation detailed in Abernathy’s book.
In a few years, the FBI will release the records from their investigations and tapping King’s hotel rooms and phone calls. When they do, the world will learn firsthand whether or not a sexual assault was committed in King’s hotel room on the night after his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC.
Too many people feel the necessity of glossing over the glaring faults in the life of MLK. It does King no credit to pretend that these faults are inconsequential. Nor do his moral failures take away from his cause or his achievements. We live in a fallen world. Every hero is tarnished. Which Old Testament saint was not tainted by scandal? Which American hero can conceal his fallenness? It does no good to deny the facts of history, even when those facts paint a less-than-flattering image of a great man.
He was a heretic.
In his defense, segregation prevented him from attending any theologically conservative college. But our cultural sins do not excuse King’s heresy.
Martin Luther King denied the virgin birth and the deity of Christ. He embraced the social gospel. Fundamental to his theology, he saw the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus as being more illustrative than redemptive. He embraced the social gospel, which was the driving force behind the abolitionism of the Civil War era. Though King rejected the “blood atonement” view of abolitionism, he looked for atonement to come from other places than the cross.
Gandhi and Rauschenbusch influenced him more than Engels, Marx, or Lenin.
King studied each of these men and their philosophies in college. He gave serious consideration to Marxist theory, but in the end, rejected it because of the totalitarian emphasis. Instead, King thoroughly embraced the social gospel promoted by Rauschenbusch, the philosopher behind the modern-day social justice movement in our country. Though King would have opposed the radicalism and hostility of Critical Race Theory (and often opposed it in his day), his legacy contributed to this philosophy.
Gandhi was his most important influence. Gandhi’s emphasis on nonviolent direct action certainly shaped King’s civil rights activism. King traveled to India to see first hand the land of Gandhi. According to Oates,
King thought Gandhi one of the great men of all time. “He was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful, effective social force on a large scale.” King rejoiced that Christ had furnished him with the spirit; now Gandhi had showed him how it could work. (Oates, p. 32)
He was a socialist, not a communist.
Because he studied most of the philosophers who have shaped our world, King could break down Engels, Marx, and Lenin and explain his opposition to each. He once described communism as “cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism.” He rejected what he called the “grand illusion” of communism, the idea that man could save himself and create a better world for himself. “…At the heart of reality is a Heart… a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of his children.” (Oates, p. 27)
To paint him as a communist is too simplistic. Some have argued that he was not a communist but became a pawn for the communists. I do not doubt that communists exploited King’s message in that day, just as they use America’s racial divide now. But their proclivity for propaganda and exploitation does not mean King was their pawn. To describe King as a pawn in any way is to underestimate his strength and character grossly. King was nobody’s pawn. He openly and passionately opposed communism throughout his life.
However, King was a socialist. His two biggest influences – Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr – plunged him into the social gospel. King strongly opposed capitalism and saw it as oppressive to his people. When you consider the kind of oppression King experienced in his life, that might be understandable. But for a man of King’s intelligence and education, we cannot excuse his failure to distinguish capitalism in its practice by fallen men and capitalism in its principles for free men.
King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” advocated strongly for socialism, and King lobbied fiercely for socialist policies in our nation. He firmly believed the government should guarantee every American a job. If no suitable jobs were available, he thought the government should guarantee every man a livable wage.
“Let us do one simple direct thing – Let us end unemployment totally and immediately.” Let America create something like Roosevelt’s old Works Progress Administration, a national agency that would provide a job to every person who needed employment – white or black, old or young. (Oates, p. 445)
King later lobbied for
“an Economic Bill of Rights,” including guaranteed jobs to all people who could work and a guaranteed income for those too old, too young, or too disabled to do so. (Oates, p. 460)For a recent application of this, read https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/20/compton-california-launches-universal-basic-income-program/5993508002/
In his defense, King saw the way his people were denied a living solely based on their skin color, and his socialism was, I believe, largely a reaction to that. But reactionary policy never makes for good policy.
Besides his socialist leanings, why do many consider Martin Luther King to be a communist? I see four main reasons: the misinformation campaign from the Klan and the White Citizens’ Council stoked by the FBI, his support of labor unions, his unwillingness to sever ties with known communists, and his defense of Ho Chi Minh.
I won’t dignify the White Citizens’ Council or the Klan and their efforts to paint King any way they could to discredit him. They claimed that King trained at Communist training camps (a claim that I learned as a teenager). The WCC doctored pictures to support their claim. The FBI’s complicity in this is a blot on their reputation. I’ll say more on this later.
As for his willing association with known communists, I think this is overstated to some extent. To protect King from being branded a communist, John F. Kennedy warned him about Stanley Levison’s ties to the communist party. As a result, King distanced himself from this very close friend. After a short time, King decided Levison’s friendship was too valuable and renewed that friendship. I do not criticize King for this – he was a very loyal friend, almost to a fault. One of King’s great qualities was his willingness to hash out differences and his determination to stick to his guns when he knew he was right. He was no pushover. When he believed that he was right, he spoke out regardless of the consequences. His inner circle featured much debate and dispute, and King never rolled over for a friend. Nor was he so obstinate that he could not change his mind. This strength of personality tarnished his reputation, giving credence to the claim that he had communist associations when America was paranoid about such things.
In my mind, what probably labeled King a communist above all else was his ill-advised defense of Ho Chi Minh. King’s motivation to speak out for the “oppressed” Viet Cong (as he saw it) came from the oppression and abuse he experienced and his natural distrust for the government. He knew how the government rationalized Jim Crow laws and recognized the same pattern in the government’s case for Vietnam. King saw the Vietnam war as one more example of white America’s hatred of black and brown people. And he said so. In one particular speech, MLK argued that Ho Chi Minh was a good man, that the Viet Cong were simply fighting for their rights and oppressed people. You can listen to the speech here.
I cannot excuse King’s advocacy for the Viet Cong. It was ill-informed and ill-advised. And for many Americans, it forever tainted King’s legacy. We can, however, commend King even in this for two reasons. First, he advocated for the VC even though his closest advisors strongly argued against it. Many of his closest friends saw it as political suicide for King to take such a position. But when King believed something to be right, he stood for it regardless of the cost. That is commendable. Second, he was one of the first prominent voices to stand against the war, and for a while, he stood alone. His advocacy was driven by conviction, not by a desire for political theater.
The Vietnam war is a complicated issue, and I know that some will disagree with what I am about to say here. In these extremely polarized times, we are more interested in assigning blame than in analyzing the issue. Conventional wisdom attaches responsibility for Vietnam almost entirely to our favorite whipping boy, Richard Nixon. But the truth is, John F. Kennedy got us into the war, and Lyndon B. Johnson ratcheted it up to a fever pitch. Richard Nixon inherited their war.
Nixon wasn’t entirely innocent. In many ways, Richard Nixon ushered in the era of heightened partisan politics. His campaigns relied heavily on character assassination. Like most politicians, he looked for a crisis for which he was the only cure. Nixon analyzed issues in terms of political gain or loss. He chose his positions pragmatically, never more so than on the topic of worldwide communist infiltration. Nixon drove the point so forcefully that communism became a political football, especially during the 1960 Presidential Campaign. Both Kennedy and Nixon tried to outdo the other in their efforts to fight communism. I blame both men for what was an ill-advised and unfortunate war. Believe it or not, I think Chris Matthews Kennedy and Nixon treats the subject fairly.
The legacy of J. Edgar Hoover plays a significant role in the discussion of King’s alleged communism. Hoover is an anomaly, a strange, haunting character in American history. Many see him as a hero. Many more see him as a pariah. Hoover took advantage of his unilateral power to manipulate and control his political rivals and enemies. He despised MLK and hounded him for much of his life, tapping his phones and spying on nearly everything he did. For Hoover, the charge of “communist” carried a lot of leverage, and he wielded it ruthlessly. So much of our opinion of King comes from the misinformation campaigns conducted by J. Edgar Hoover. You should understand that Hoover used the charge of “communist” as a pretext for wire-tapping King. But Hoover could never prove that King was a communist. If he could have, he would have; you can be sure of that.
Hoover had a strange obsession with the sex lives of powerful men. He often exploited that obsession – along with the powers he held as leader of the FBI – to secure and guarantee his hold on one of the most powerful positions in the American government. When I hear people say that James Comey has ruined the FBI, I have to chuckle. The truth is, Comey has merely carried on the legacy established by J. Edgar Hoover, who weaponized the power of the FBI for political advantage.
He deserves much credit.
I do not believe that we should honor Martin Luther King uncritically. But I do believe him to be worthy of honor. If I were a black person, I would be very thankful for him and what he accomplished in his short lifetime. He stood for what he knew to be right – the dignity of all men, the God-given rights of his people, the importance of freedom.
He willingly and knowingly risked his life to secure the rights of his people. He knew the hatred aimed at himself, the death threats regularly made towards him, and the likelihood that his enemies would murder him for his cause. Yet, he fought for his people.
He opposed black power and militancy.
I believe Martin Luther King prevented a bloodbath in America by his nonviolent approach. When he began to step up for his people, black militarism was on the rise in our country. The more hostile white America became towards blacks, and the more violent their reactions were to any request for dignity, the more racial hostility became a powder-keg. W.E.B. DuBoise became a bitter and jaded man primarily due to the resistance he regularly encountered. White hatred gave rise to men like Malcolm X, a contemporary (and fierce critic) of King. Even in King’s heyday, he could not prevent the rise of black power on the part of frustrated colleagues. Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP, joined King in repudiating the black power movement.
No matter how endlessly they try to explain it, the term black power means anti-white power. It has to mean ‘going it alone.’ It has to mean separatism.”
Wilkins went on to describe the slogan as “the father of hate and the mother of violence.” (Oates, p. 405)
In his day, King won out with his nonviolent approach and his emphasis on direct action. Despite the rising tensions and disagreements even within his movement, King prevented massive rioting and violent demonstration during his lifetime. He openly and eloquently refuted those who advocated for revenge and militancy.
At one of his first public speeches that launched the civil rights movement, King said,
If we protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people, of black people, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.” (Oates, p. 71)
He faced much opposition, even from his own people.
One of our church members, a black man who spent some time as a black activist on the university scene, shared with me his view of Martin Luther King before he came to Christ. He told me that, in his opinion, King was too soft. As a black activist, he preferred Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois to MLK and Booker T.
Many shared that same opinion in his day. King faced much envy and suspicion from among his people. The charge was often leveled against him that he was a grandstander. He only showed up for the cameras; he sought publicity more than his people’s good; he was too soft, too conciliatory towards white oppressors.
Yet, King faced these criticisms with courage and determination. He did not bend to pressure from within his circles or from among his people. King was a fierce fighter; he fiercely opposed violence. He argued that oppression is not answered with oppression, that hatred is not answered with hate. He did not collapse in the face of criticism or cave to the demands of the militants.
He inspired his people with a sense of dignity and self-respect.
In my mind, this is the most significant part of the legacy of MLK. King found it disheartening to see the subservient mindset of his people. He recognized the uneasy truce that previous generations made with the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow. And he decided to do something about it. King proclaimed that God created the black man in His image. He reminded his people that the black man has all the dignity that rightly belongs to humanity, just like every other person. King did not attempt to elevate the black man above any other “race” or ethnicity or skin color. He argued against that sort of “skinism.” But he encouraged his people to shake off the mindset of perpetual subservience and to stand up for their God-given rights as individuals.
And that perhaps was King’s greatest gift to his long-suffering people in Dixie: he taught them how to confront those who oppressed them, how to take pride in their race and their history, how to demand and win their constitutional rights as American citizens. He helped them “destroy barriers of fear and insecurity that had been hundreds of years in the making,” said a young (black) leader. “He made it possible for them to believe they could overcome.” (Oates, p. 372, emphasis in the manuscript)
America is a better place because of Martin Luther King. I hope this article has helped to commend King and his legacy to you.