Reports of Martin Luther King’s liaisons are nothing new. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI tapped his hotel rooms and obtained damaging material—information that, according to Hoover’s odd notion of national security, was crucial to the republic’s survival. Two books—both Pulitzer Prize winners—dealt with King’s romances. Now, another account—the most dramatic and, for many, the most infuriating— comes from Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the trusted lieutenant who marched side-by-side with King during the dazzling, dangerous years of America’s civil rights revolution.
In his newly published book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Abernathy claims that on the night before his death, King was in the company of two women and, the next morning, angrily knocked a third across a bed following a disagreement. Married and the father of four children, King believed in fidelity, Abernathy insisted. “It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation. We all fall
short of the mark____Sexual sins are by no
means the worst. Hatred and a cold disregard for others are besetting our time.”
Since Abernathy’s revelations, many who supported King have denounced the 63-yearold minister. Critics challenge his motives, memory, health, intellect and sense of decency. “This is but another attempt to diminish the life and work of the only spiritual genius America has produced,” said a statement signed by 27 black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks and Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta. “It is time for detractors to cease their futile efforts to diminish this legacy that God has given to our time and to all time through Dr. King.”
Even television's Bryant Gumbel was distressed to the point where journalism—such as it is practised by the hosts of wake-up programs—became an afterthought. “You have to know this would hurt Martin’s wife, Martin’s
Fred Burning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
A new book claims that on the night before his death, King was with two women and, next morning, shoved a third across a bed
family,” scolded the Today star while interviewing Abernathy. Gumbel charged that controversial items in Abernathy’s book would offer “great comfort” to those who revile King. “Why did you give them the weapon?” Abernathy answered that he had no choice.
Since his book became a bombshell, Abernathy has protested that King’s private life hardly was a secret and if Tumbling Down was to be credible, he could not avoid the issue. How, as a confidant of King, could he fail to acknowledge what outsiders already had reported? He was not breaking this troubling news, only trying to put it into perspective.
Disclosures about King’s need for female companionship were published in a volume titled Parting the Waters-. America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch, and in another acclaimed book, Bearing the Cross, by David Garrow, who studied the FBI’s harassment of King. Garrow has reported that federal agents determined that King had several casual affairs and one that “increasingly became the emotional centrepiece” of his life—an intelligence bonanza for Hoover and his allies on the screwball right.
Abernathy, on the other hand, claims he intended no harm—that his aim was to portray
Martin Luther King as a human being and not just a reasonable facsimile. “I wrote nothing out of malice,” Abernathy says. “Martin was my closest friend, my buddy. For years, he had been placed in the position of being a saint, a Jesus, a god, but he was merely mortal, flesh and blood. If I hadn’t written about what I saw, they would have accused me of whitewashing history. It’s only two pages out of more than 600. The book is a tribute to my friend.”
But those two pages were extraordinary. Abernathy says that after a late dinner on April 3,1968, he and King returned to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and went to the room of A. D. King, brother of the rights leader. King’s brother was with a white woman, Abernathy says, but “there was a black woman in the room as well, a member of the Kentucky legislature; and she had clearly come to see Martin.”
Abernathy said that he left the room but, the next day, King asked him to intercede on his behalf with a third woman. “She’s mad at me,” Abernathy quotes King as saying. “She came in this morning and found my bed empty.” Abernathy says King and the woman argued and that King, losing his temper, “knocked her across the bed.” He adds, “It was more a shove than a real blow.” Abernathy says King called out for the woman to stay but that she headed to the airport.
Hours later, King was dead—shot down by James Earl Ray. The event was as convulsive as any in 20th-century America. A transcendent leader had been lost, and there was no replacement for him. America seemed up for grabs—Vietnam, civil rights, a generation of alienated young people. Jack Kennedy was murdered and then Robert Kennedy. The centre seemed not to be holding. On some days, there seemed no centre at all.
King loyalists view Abernathy’s account as the work of a vain and disillusioned man—and, some say, a man who has suffered two strokes and perhaps is impaired. Some claim Abernathy drank heavily on the night in question and that his recollections are in doubt. Others say Abernathy was, at the least, indiscreet. Noting that Abernathy reportedly has pledged to donate proceeds from his book to the civil rights cause, columnist William Raspberry, who is black, dismissed the gesture “as the rough equivalent of Judas dropping his 30 pieces of silver into the collection basket.”
We will never know for sure why Ralph Abernathy wrote so provocatively about his friend’s last night. One can sympathize with those loyal to the slain leader who consider the book slanderous and Abernathy a traitor. Followers want to keep King’s memory bright and secure—to save his name as they would have shielded him from death, if only that had been possible. Abernathy says he wants nothing less.
The question remains: are King’s private struggles relevant to his public role? How much do we need to know? In the case of incidental figures—pop stars and petty politicians—we need not know very much. But Martin Luther King was enormous, his importance still beyond calculation. To ignore his frailties would be to diminish his greatness. The first demand of history is full disclosure.
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