He was, without any doubt, one of America’s greatest heroes. A brave, eloquent and inspiring man whose stirring speeches still resonate powerfully today.
No wonder, on the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington at which he made his I Have A Dream speech, the U.S. President and former presidents—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—gathered this week to pay tribute to Martin Luther King.
But Washington didn’t always feel that way about the Baptist preacher and civil rights leader from Atlanta, Georgia.
Driven by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s mistaken conviction that King was a dangerous Communist, federal agents bugged his hotel rooms. What they found, and tried to use against him in a poisonous blackmail campaign, was not evidence of Communism but of serial adultery.
Leading one of the most astonishing double lives in history, King was not just the Bible-thumping champion of the rights of man, but also an inveterate womaniser who cheated on his wife throughout their marriage.
King’s secret sex life became such a talking point at the White House that recently released interviews with Jackie Kennedy revealed even she knew about it.
Jackie confided how her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy had told her the FBI had recorded King trying to arrange a sex party on the night before the March on Washington in August 1963.
‘I can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible,’ sniffed the former First Lady. Bobby had told her that King ‘was calling up all these girls and arranging for a party of men and women, I mean, sort of an orgy’.
That King was a sex addict—though probably no worse than Mrs Kennedy’s husband, JFK—has long been a source of embarrassment in an America that effectively declared him a saint.
Though it is beyond question that King was charismatic, tireless and courageous, it is also indisputably true that this brilliant man had a seamier side, as one of Dr King’s closest associates confirmed.
Civil rights campaigner the Rev Ralph Abernathy was the man who cradled King the day he was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
But in 1989, Abernathy—who succeeded King as the movement’s leader — incurred the eternal wrath of his allies and accusations of a Judas-like betrayal after he confirmed that long-standing rumours about his old friend’s rampant sexual appetites were true.
In his autobiography, Abernathy said King—whose 1953 marriage to Coretta Scott produced four children—had a ‘weakness for women’.
King, a pastor from the age of 25, ‘understood and believed in the Biblical prohibition against sex outside marriage,’ said his friend. ‘It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.’
And that was putting it mildly. Abernathy related an extraordinary story that indicated King spent the last night of his life enjoying the attentions of not one but two lovers, followed by an encounter with a third woman whom he knocked sprawling across his motel room bed.
The fateful evening had started with King delivering his historic I’ve Been To The Mountaintop speech at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, in which he appeared to foresee his own death.
Afterwards, Abernathy, King and a civil rights movement comrade, the Rev Bernard Lee, went to the home of one of King’s female friends for a late-night dinner.
Abernathy said he and Lee took a post-prandial nap in the sitting room. He awoke at 1am to see King emerging with the woman from her bedroom.
They then returned to their lodgings at a local motel, where a black female politician was waiting to see him. She got her wish and Abernathy left the couple to go to get some sleep in the room he shared with King.
At around 7am or 8am, King burst into their bedroom, looking alarmed, said Abernathy. King needed his friend’s help to calm down a third woman who was, he said, ‘mad at me. She came in this morning and found my bed empty’.
As a reviewer of Abernathy’s book put it at the time, the author’s implication was obvious: ‘King, a married man, had been unfaithful even in his unfaithfulness.’
The drama didn’t end there. When the third woman turned up in the room, her argument with King became so intense that he ‘lost his temper and knocked her across the bed’.
In the hailstorm of outrage from the civil rights movement that followed his claims, several of those involved in this eventful night later came out to challenge Abernathy’s version.
Adjua Abi Naantaanbuu, a Memphis hair salon owner, said she hosted the dinner party and there had been no sex in her house that night. She hadn’t been a friend of King either, merely a civil rights activist who had been asked to feed the visitors.
Georgia Davis Powers, the Kentucky state senator who paid that late visit to King at the motel, said the pair simply stayed up talking until 4am. Bernard Lee claimed Abernathy’s tale was invented and he had ‘betrayed a great trust . . . to make a buck’.
But Abernathy stuck to his story until his death. ‘In all honesty, in all fairness, it happened,’ he said.
Were Abernathy’s critics closing ranks to protect the legacy of a giant? Their problem was that Abernathy was not the only one to level such accusations.
Though the subject never makes it into the admiring discussions of King on U.S. breakfast TV, CNN or the pages of the New York Times, the preacher’s serial sexual adultery has been covered in a string of acclaimed biographies.
According to Pulitzer prize-winning biographer David Garrow, it was an open secret among civil rights, activists who even warned King to rein in his ‘compulsive sexual athleticism’.
But he was unrepentant, bluntly telling a friend: ‘I’m away from home 25 to 27 days a month. F*****g’s a form of anxiety reduction.’
Though he didn’t name names, Garrow said three particular women became more than one-nights stands.
King grew very close to one of them — believed to be a female colleague from Atlanta. At one point, he saw her almost every day, though—Garrow added—‘it did not eliminate the incidental couplings that were a commonplace of King’s travels’.
It was clearly not just the civil rights leader doing the chasing. A King aide recalled watching woman after woman making passes at King at a suburban New York fund-raising party.
‘I could not believe what I was seeing in white Westchester women,’ he said. ‘They would walk up to him and would sort of lick their lips and hint, and [hand him] notes . . . After I saw that thing that evening, I didn’t blame him.’
Evidently, King could afford to be choosy in his adultery. According to an old family friend: ‘The girls he “dated” were just like models . . . tall . . . all usually were very fair, never dark.’ King, he added, was ‘really a Casanova’, but one who had a ‘quiet dignity’ and was respectful towards his many conquests.
It was an extraordinary secret existence for a man who used the message of the Gospels in all his speeches and who would tell interviewers that ‘sex is basically sacred . . . and must never be abused’.
But as even his closest friends attested, King was a male chauvinist who insisted his wife—a devoted civil rights activist—stay at home and bring up the children while he travelled America with his firebrand preaching.
He once told Coretta he was too busy to discuss which school they should choose for their daughter. On the few days he did spend at home, King was continually on the phone.
It didn’t help that when he was out on the road with his fellow preachers in the early civil rights movement, he was among like minds. Commentators say these pastors’ sexual charisma was a fundamental part of their appeal to congregations.
Sleeping with female members was the norm rather than the exception and King himself admitted that he didn’t know a single black preacher who was chaste.
As the veteran activist Michael Harrington delicately phrased it, the movement was ‘not at all a sour-faced, pietistic’ endeavour. ‘Everybody was out getting laid.’ Or trying to.
One of King’s most distinguished biographers, Taylor Branch, revealed how—on King’s trip to Norway to collect the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—members of his entourage were found running after naked or near-naked prostitutes in the Oslo hotel where they were staying. Only a desperate appeal to hotel security saved them from being thrown out.
Branch also detailed how FBI agents bugged King’s hotel room in Washington in January 1964 and recorded him in adulterous full flow. ‘I’m f*****g for God! I’m not a negro tonight!’ he could be heard shouting.
The same year, the FBI anonymously sent King a ‘highlights’ tape of his sexual groaning and dirty jokes, along with a message that read: ‘You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.’
King interpreted this as a call for him to commit suicide, though FBI insiders later said they were simply seeking his resignation from the civil rights movement.
The FBI also sent damning evidence to his colleagues, politicians and major media outlets (who, for reasons unclear, declined to publicise them).
Some of what these anonymous letters claimed—such as King’s penchant for white prostitutes and his use of church donations to pay for drunken orgies—have been hotly disputed, even by those who admit that King slept around.
Abernathy insisted his friend was ‘never attracted to white women and had nothing to do with them’, even if he had opportunities.
But there’s another mystery: why, having collected the evidence, did the government never make more of these highly incriminating tapes? Many senior government figures—not least the formidable J. Edgar Hoover—would have exposed King like a shot.
But, according to Taylor Branch, while President Lyndon Johnson felt betrayed by King over his public opposition to the Vietnam War, he baulked at using the FBI’s dossier against him.
It’s not clear why his predecessor, JFK, also stayed his hand, but given his own philandering, perhaps he thought it would be hypocritical.
When he got the tape, King was surprised to learn that the FBI knew so much about his private life, but he also told friends it was none of their business. The FBI tape was also sent to Coretta: she claimed she could not make out what was going on and ignored it.
Later she admitted she had never once discussed infidelity with King, saying: ‘I just wouldn’t have burdened him with anything so trivial . . . all that other business just didn’t have a place in the very high-level relationship we enjoyed.’
As his old friend Ralph Abernathy noted: ‘Women are always attracted to a hero.’ And King was certainly that.
Charming, gracious, affable and perfectly mannered, King ‘attracted them in droves, even when he didn’t intend to’, he added.
For all his very human flaws, he was a man of immense goodness who turned the tide against racial bigotry in America. Only four men in U.S. history have a national monument and only one—King—has a holiday named in his honour.
But one wonders what he would think of the almost god-like adulation he receives today.
His wife and friends said he was racked by guilt about his personal failings. He found it uncomfortable to be put on a pedestal when all he wanted to do was end the injustice of segregation.
On Sundays, at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King would tell his congregation—without being too specific—that he was a ‘sinner’.
He added: ‘There is a Mr Hyde and a Dr Jekyll in all of us . . . you don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint.’