Was famed American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. a prodigious adulterer and sex addict?
That question has swirled around King and his legacy ever since his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Defenders of the King legacy still blanch at the claim. They point to well-supported evidence that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover deliberately tried to smear King with allegations of sexual impropriety, including suggestions that King was having “orgies” with his followers and paying for trysts with prostitutes.
There’s little doubt that Hoover was obsessed with King. At one point, he directed that an “anonymous” typewritten letter be sent to King’s home, allegedly from a horrified supporter, who denounced the Baptist minister and accused him of propagating “evil” and “hypocrisy.”
The letter went on to suggest that King should “do the right thing” – implying that he should commit suicide
At the time, King was still in Oslo, Norway where he’d just become the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon his return his wife, Coretta, apparently unfazed, showed her husband the letter. King suspected right away that Hoover had sent it.
The idea for Hoover’s smear campaign didn’t materialize out of thin air. It started with a decision by attorney general Robert F. Kennedy to place a wiretap on the phone of Stanley Levinson, a supporter of the American Communist Party who was one of King’s leading ghostwriters and fundraisers.
King was approached by the federal government and warned of his association with Levinson. King reportedly promised to cut his ties but in fact, Levinson remained at his side.
That prompted Hoover to authorize FBI surveillance of King, including bugs placed in the hotel rooms where King often stayed during his speaking and organizing tours.
Hoover’s surveillance didn’t reveal King to be a national security threat – but it did expose a string of extra-marital affairs, many of them with young female admirers.
The scandal surrounding King’s sex life featured prominently in the film, “Selma,” a Hollywood biopic nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2015. King is depicted as having an intimate conversation with his wife Coretta who confronts him about the widely circulating claims.
King’s leading biographer David Garrow claims that conversation never actually happened but was inserted in the film for dramatic effect. King’s affairs were an “open secret” in the civil rights movement, he says, but his wife pretended both publicly and even privately that she was unaware of them, even after receiving audiotapes from the FBI.
Moreover, despite media leaks from Hoover, a sympathetic American news media decided not to treat the matter as legitimate news, much as they backed off from reporting on John F. Kennedy’s sexual affairs as president.
Right up to his death, King was indulging his fondness for women who were not his wife.
His last night alive was spent in the company of another woman who has never been identified. When an ambulance arrived to rush King to the hospital, she was told by King’s top aides not to accompany a stricken civil rights leader to the hospital.
Some of King’s closest associates would later acknowledge that King had a “weakness for women.”
For example, in his controversial 1989 autobiography Ralph Abernathy, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, claimed that King “understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.”
One can only speculate how the issue of King’s sexual affairs would be treated in today’s ideologically charged media and political climate in which any sex rumor, no matter how unsubstantiated, is treated as “legitimate news.”
Numerous other politicians, most but not all of them Democrats, have also seen their careers ended by sexual improprieties, including former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Rep. Anthony Weiner, the husband of Huma Abedin, a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton.
Bill Clinton’s affairs with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment by one body of Congress on the eve of his departure from office. He was eventually disbarred as a lawyer and the stain from the scandal has haunted the Clintons ever since.
But in all of those cases, the women involved in the affairs came forward or federal authorities leaked information to an all-too-eager press. Many of those women went on to become social media celebrities or used their association with scandal as a stepping stone to career advancement.
Not King’s paramours. Even today, their identities are a closely kept secret. A 1977 court order has sealed all records of FBI surveillance of King until 2027.
One reason, perhaps, that King’s stature as a larger-than-life spiritual father figure that changed the course of American history has never been seriously tarnished.