At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. The bullet shattered his right jawline before ricocheting down his spinal column and lodging in his left shoulder blade. He collapsed on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel and died at St. Joseph’s Hospital an hour and four minutes later.1 King’s activities as a civil rights leader are legendary. What some fans may be dismayed to learn is that he routinely cheated on his wife.
King had delivered his final address the previous night. Commonly known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he was introduced to the podium by his “closest friend and associate,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy, calling him “the best friend that I have in the world.”2 It was Abernathy who testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations “that he and Dr. King stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine so often that it was referred to as the ‘King-Abernathy suite.'”3 It was Abernathy who allegedly witnessed King assault an unnamed woman in his motel room the morning that he died. And it was Abernathy who later wrote about King’s “extramarital relations” in his 1989 autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.4 In fact, the book claims that prior to the altercation in his motel room, King had intercourse with an unidentified woman, as well as a “member of the Kentucky Legislature,” despite the fact that he and his associates “all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage.”4 5 That these alleged infidelities occurred separately rather than simultaneously was not immediately clear from secondary sources.
King’s followers were understandably upset by Abernathy’s perceived betrayal. As William Raspberry of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Here is a man at pains to paint himself closer than a brother to King: his confidant, alter-ego and most trusted advisor. And then he proves his closeness by betraying the confidence.”6 In the wake of this backlash, Abernathy pointblank denied writing that King “had sex with anyone” the night before he died.7
But Abernathy wasn’t the first writer to comment on King’s extramarital shenanigans, which were reportedly as notorious as they were numerous. Three years earlier, historian David Garrow had published his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In it, he addresses “the incidental couplings that were a commonplace of King’s travels,” as well as an ongoing affair with King’s “other wife,” Dorothy Cotton.8 9 King described his promiscuity as “a form of anxiety reduction,” which, Abernathy speculates, caused him “painful and at times overwhelming guilt.”8
King had every reason to be anxious. As early as 1957, he’d earned himself a spot on the FBI’s unofficial watch list due to his budding friendship with suspected Communist Stanley Levison. Attorney General Robert Kennedy personally approved wiretapping of King’s home and SCLC offices in 1963. Unknown to Kennedy, the bureau also bugged King’s hotel and motel rooms.10 In 1967, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover increased the bureau’s measures against King and the SCLC, stating, “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters.”11
A 1975 investigation conducted by the Senate Select Committee, popularly known as the Church Committee after Chairman Frank Church, confirms that “from December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ‘neutralize’ him as an effective civil rights leader.”12 According to the NSA, these “disreputable if not outright illegal” smear tactics included an anonymous, coercive letter that King interpreted as an attempt to drive him to suicide.13 14 In addition, he was jailed thirty times and almost died when a mentally ill woman named Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a penknife.15 16
But Abernathy also claims that the “principle explanation” for King’s promiscuity was too personal to divulge, begging the question: what was so intimate that even this so-called Judas balked at mentioning it?4 Was it an incident that had occurred in King’s youth? A privately held religious belief that contradicted his public ministry? Dissatisfaction with the attention that he was receiving on the rare occasions that he was home? One can only speculate.
Sen. Georgia Davis Powers initially denied being the “member of the Kentucky Legislature” who Abernathy mentions in his book.5 It wasn’t until 1995, when she released her own autobiography, I Shared the Dream: The Pride, Passion, and Politics of the First Black Woman Senator from Kentucky, that she was finally willing to corroborate her associate’s account. Then, in a 2017 interview conducted by Prof. Jason Miller, Dorothy Cotton claimed to be the third woman in question.17 This contradicts Garrow’s 2019 claim that Cotton took her illicit relationship with King to the grave.18
According to Miller’s article, both women stayed at the Lorraine Motel the night before King died, Cotton in the room adjacent to his and Powers on the floor below. Anticipating that King might be hungry after his “Mountaintop” speech, Cotton bought them chicken wings and then waited up for him all night. At one point, she even wandered around in the rain looking for him, plate of food in hand. Little did she know that after sleeping with the unidentified woman at the post-speech dinner party, King was bedding Powers in another part of the motel—presumably in her room because he wasn’t in his when Cotton checked around 3:00 a.m., half an hour after he and Abernathy returned to the motel, where Powers was waiting.5 When King finally resurfaced around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., he and Cotton argued and she left, boarding a 1:00 p.m. flight to Atlanta. Miller’s article makes no mention of an assault, claiming that King begged her to stay and she refused.
If Cotton’s story checks out, it wouldn’t be the first time that a woman who’d knowingly helped a man betray his wife was outraged to discover that she wasn’t his only mistress. In such cases, self-righteous indignation followed by a dignified exit appear to be a question of honor. Significantly, Coretta King never denied her husband’s infidelities, stating, “I just wouldn’t have burdened him with anything so trivial . . . all that other business just doesn’t have a place in the very high-level relationship we enjoyed.”8 But those who believe that monogamy is the premise of marriage might find themselves wondering if it was Coretta’s seeming docility about such matters, rather than her other qualities, which ultimately made King decide that she was his ideal spouse.19
Then, in May 2019, Garrow shocked the world by announcing that King had “looked on, laughed and offered advice” as his associate Rev. Logan Kearse raped one of his parishioners.18 Garrow’s alleged source was a handwritten note, attached to a declassified FBI file, from the bureau’s comprehensive surveillance report. The crime allegedly occurred when one of the women traveling in Kearse’s retinue objected to participating in “natural” and “unnatural sex acts.”18
If Garrow’s account of the bureau’s report can be credited, King spent a significant portion of his free time (and by extension, his campaign donations) rutting and screwing like a wild beast. In addition to his regular and incidental hookups, he allegedly stood by as an accessory to rape, participated in “a sex orgy” that included “acts of degeneracy and depravity,” and had a foursome with a prostitute who he refused on principle to pay (the principle presumably being that it’s not prostitution if no money changes hands).18 When Coretta accused him of not spending “ten hours a month at home,” he allegedly told her that if he was “not fulfilling his marital ‘responsibilities'” to her satisfaction, “she should go out and have some sexual affairs of her own.”18 The report reads like a salacious penny dreadful, in which King’s highest mountaintop was a woman’s breasts and his lowest valley was her an–s.
To be fair, King wasn’t the first or the last man to fall foul of the Bible’s sexual prohibitions. Sexual perversion seems to follow sin like a shark follows blood. Thus, King David slept with Bathsheba and murdered her husband (2 Sam. 11). Thus, the ancient Greeks and Romans employed temple prostitutes as an act of worship.20 Thus, Joseph Smith is believed to have married close to forty women.21 Thus, Gandhi slept beside naked young women to see if he could pass the night without violating them.22 Thus, Ravi Zacharias abused his position as a Christian evangelist to solicit sex from numerous massage therapists.23 Thus, a married elder at my church made inappropriate advances before counseling me about sexual purity.
When I told the other elders at my church about the incident, they assured me that they took such accusations very seriously, as well they might. But when I expressed disgust at the man’s behavior, the elder who they’d chosen to meet with me scoffed, “Well, we all sin, right?” “Not sexually,” I retorted, wondering if his incredulity was a sign that he struggled with this particular sin himself.
This was the same man who’d claimed that salvation was assured regardless of obedience. True, obedience doesn’t save us but it is evidence that Christ has. True, living in sin doesn’t cause us to lose our salvation but it is evidence that we were never saved. We can’t pick and chose the parts of the Bible that are palatable to us, maintain a lifestyle of disobedience, show up to church on Sundays to slap God’s face, and expect to spend eternity with Him in heaven. That’s not how Christianity works.24
God is an all-or-nothing God, an all-consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 30:27).25 No one unwilling to dance in those flames, to be stripped of everything from the clothes on their backs to their very joints and marrow, is worthy of the kingdom of heaven (Isa. 9:62, Heb. 4:12). To enter that furnace is to be refined like gold or consumed like dross.26 Either way, we will not survive it. The only way to live (in Christ) is to die (to sin) (Rom. 6:11).27 That is the great paradox of Christianity.
What I always admired most about King was that he used truth to promote justice, unlike present-day influencers who cry “Peace, peace!” while seeking to separate ethics from religion (Jer. 6:14; 8:11; Ezek. 13:10, 16).28 By the grace of God, we’re not the measure of truth. We don’t create it at our whim or maintain it at our leisure. It’s not rooted in our behavior but in God’s unerring character. It’s an objective reality that exists outside ourselves regardless of how we choose to respond to it.29
In this sense, King’s indiscretions don’t invalidate his civil rights activities any more than the Crusades negate Christianity or the sins of an elder negate the Church. But in another sense, to those who don’t have the eyes to see or the ears to hear, the Gospel is greatly damaged by the gross hypocrisy of supporting a cause with principles that we ourselves don’t practice (Ezek. 12:2, etc.). And every time our actions don’t match our words or our words don’t match our beliefs, we risk weakening the very position that we sought to strengthen.30
We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, but Christian leaders like King are called to a greater degree of sanctification than their congregants (Rom. 3:23; Heb. 13:17; James 3:1).31 32 The Apostle Paul lays out the prerequisites for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–16.33 Elsewhere, the Bible teaches personal responsibility and forbids holding parents accountable for their children’s sins and vice versa, but so seriously does God take the criteria for church leaders that even their children are required to show evidence of their suitability (Ezek. 18:20).34 Moreover, in each of the above passages, elders and deacons are commanded to be faithful to one wife.
As a minister, King was first and foremost a Christian. Yet, he grossly, willfully, and repeatedly flouted the biblical prohibitions against pre- and extramarital sex, despite the guilt that he allegedly felt about it.35 He didn’t score points for feeling guilty about his sin. Guilt is the minimum requirement for repentance. Without repentance, guilt counts for nothing. That’s the difference between guilt and conviction.36 In this sense, God is a “hard” God but—oh!—when we finally grasp the measure of His holiness, what astounding grace.