Damian Thompson, Telegraph (London), August 28, 2013
Martin Luther King was a hero but he was certainly no saint. If he’d had to face aggressive tabloids and gossip websites, his career would have been destroyed – as, of course, would John F Kennedy’s.
Let’s begin with the real career-killer: he plagiarised his doctoral thesis from Boston University. This very useful post on snopes.com about the Martin Luther King scandals does a good job of separating myth from reality, and the plagiarism is proven. The following is from The New York Times in 1991:
A committee of scholars appointed by Boston University concluded today that the Rev Martin Luther King Jr plagiarized passages in his dissertation for a doctoral degree at the university 36 years ago.
“There is no question,” the committee said in a report to the university’s provost, “but that Dr King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation.”
Despite its finding, the committee said that “no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr King’s doctoral degree,” an action that the panel said would serve no purpose.
But the committee did recommend that a letter stating its finding be placed with the official copy of Dr King’s dissertation in the university’s library.
You may not be surprised to learn that the story of King’s plagiarism was around for a long time before the American press deigned to touch it – but when his old university found him retrospectively guilty the story could hardly be ignored. Needless to say, BU didn’t take away his doctorate, as it would have in almost any other similar case.
Then there’s King’s womanising, not quite as pathological as JFK’s but still – even according to some of his friends – pretty vigorous. Civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, who was with him when he was murdered, was explicit on the subject in his autobiography. As People magazine reported in 1989:
Abernathy’s damning charge is that King spent the last night of his life enjoying two successive extramarital liaisons, followed by a knockdown motel-room fight with a third woman.
Abernathy caused huge offence with his claim – but he replied by saying that he was keen to dispel myths about King. Yes, he had a voracious sexual appetite; but no, he did not have a taste for white prostitutes, as his enemies alleged. Those enemies included Jackie Kennedy, as the Daily Mail reported in 2011:
Jackie Kennedy hated Martin Luther King so much she could barely look at photographs of him.
In interviews taped in 1964 but only just released, she said the black civil rights leader was a “terrible man” and a “phoney”.
She claimed King bragged of being drunk at her husband John F Kennedy’s funeral and had been caught trying to set up an orgy.
Mrs Kennedy said her view of King was formed after being told [by Robert Kennedy] of secret FBI wiretaps which showed him trying to organise a sex party before he attended the March on Washington in August 1963, at which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
As I say, Martin Luther King was a hero. We shouldn’t remember him for cheating on his doctorate and his wife. But it’s worth noting: if he’d been a famous white Republican, his reputation would have been comprehensively trashed by historians and the media.