Robert George and Eugene Rivers responded recently to the latest revelations about America’s most iconic civil rights leader, asking: “Does the sexual depravity of Martin Luther King, Jr. negate his work and witness in the cause of racial justice?”
George is a white Catholic philosopher at Princeton University, and Rivers is a Harvard educated black Pentecostal preacher. They believe that MLK’s behavior must be historically acknowledged and condemned even while he still merits honor for his work on behalf of America’s highest ideals of human equality.
MLK’s chronic infidelities have been widely known for decades. But a recently discovered 1964 FBI memo, based on an FBI eavesdrop of MLK’s DC hotel room, reports MLK and another pastor hosted an orgy with several women. MLK is described laughing as his pastor friend forces one woman into a sexual act she resisted, arguably making MLK complicit in rape.
The memo was written by FBI official William Sullivan, reputedly a devout Catholic who was particularly preoccupied by MLK’s sexual misdeeds. FBI recordings, originally justified to monitor MLK’s ties to leftists like his longtime friend and former Communist Party USA member Stanley Levinson, reportedly chronicle MLK’s encounters with 40 women during the 1960s. These recordings will not become publicly available until 2027. Sullivan’s memo about MLK at the Willard Hotel in 1964, which also included a second orgy the following night with 12 people, offers the most graphic account yet available of MLK’s torrid personal life.
But discovery of Sullivan’s memo was not the first account of MLK in a DC hotel. In 2011 recordings of Jackie Kennedy emerged in which she recalled Bobby Kennedy had told her about an FBI tape of MLK organizing an orgy at a Washington hotel during the 1963 March on Washington. President Kennedy, she recalled, urged her not to be judgmental of MLK, which is unsurprising, since JFK’s own infidelities were as epic as MLK’s. In a 2012 memoir, a former JFK mistress recalled she was seduced as a 19 year old intern, and the President once asked her to perform sex on a JFK male aide while he watched in the White House pool.
So how should great and widely admired figures like JFK and MLK be assessed amid such revelations?
Robert George and Eugene Rivers wrote of the new MLK revelations:
All of this is to be condemned. It is to be condemned unequivocally—no ifs, ands, or buts. It was against the biblical Christian faith that King presented himself as holding and in whose name he spoke against racial injustice. It was against the natural moral law, which he rightly invoked in denouncing segregation and Jim Crow. It was against the Gospel proclaimed then and now by faithful Christians of all traditions and, with special force, by those of the Black church tradition which King inherited from his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.
But they also defend MLK’s civil rights legacy:
Does knowing the truth about King, however much it diminishes our esteem for him, negate his work and witness in the cause of racial justice? This is the crucial question, and the answer is “No.”
As we’ve noted, the truth is the truth. It doesn’t cease being the truth because of who spoke it or for what reasons. What King said about racism and segregation was true: they are contrary to the biblical teaching that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is, as such, the bearer of inherent and equal dignity; they violate the natural law—the law “written on the hearts of even the Gentiles who have not the law of Moses,” but who, by the light of reason, can know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice; and they contradict our nation’s foundational commitments, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. At a time when these truths were ignored, and even denied, King proclaimed them boldly.
George and Rivers believe MLK should continue to be honored:
Shocked by what has recently come to light, some may call for monuments to King to be taken down and for boulevards, schools, and the like that are named in his honor to be renamed. We ask our fellow citizens not to go down this road. The monuments and honors are obviously not for King’s objectification and exploitation of women, but for his leadership and courage in the fight for racial justice. Everyone understands that. Future generations will understand it too. Just as we ought not to strip the slaveholding George Washington of honors but continue to recognize his courage and leadership in the American Revolution and the crucial role he played in establishing an enduring democratic republic, we should not strip King of honors for his wrongdoing. While acknowledging his faults and their gravity, we should continue to recognize and celebrate all he did to make our nation a truly democratic republic—one in which the principles and promise of the American founding are much more fully realized.
MLK’s moral failures are a reminder not to deify any human, no matter how heroic, or to trust in the arm of flesh. God deploys whom He will to achieve His purposes. Ultimately we trust in and thank Him, not His sinful human instruments.
This ultimate trust in God should not inhibit honoring the people through whom He works, as their example should inspire others to yield to God’s purposes. Nor should admitting all are sinners by nature preclude high moral expectations, especially for leaders who profess to be champions of biblical justice. Divine grace is available to all, and this grace suffices to protect anyone from gross moral failure. Realism should not equate with cynicism.
We inevitably reflect most on the great and the famous by worldly standards. But the greatest servants in God’s Kingdom may turn out to be persons whom the world ignored, yet they will shine most brightly for all eternity.