The New York Times suddenly distrusts left-wing scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Luther King Jr. biographer David Garrow. Why? Because the scholar unearthed F.B.I archives suggesting the civil rights icon once laughed along as a colleague raped a woman in his presence in a hotel.
Garrow’s bombshell piece was rejected by many news outlets, including the Times (which actually ran an pre-emptive op-ed against it, evidently before the paper’s skeptical news piece was even posted). It was eventually picked up by the British magazine Standpoint.
While Garrow relied on summaries of wiretaps, not the original tapes, which are sealed until 2027, he argued there is no obvious reason to embellish such details, since such records would not have been expected to have any public or historical value.
Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler’s piece made the front of Wednesday’s Arts section, a petulant questioning of Garrow’s scholarship: “His Martin Luther King Biography Was a Classic. His Latest King Piece Is Causing a Furor -- David Garrow found F.B.I. documents alleging King stood by during a rape. But some scholars question whether to trust records created as part of a smear campaign.”
Schuessler’s take is a fascinating throwback to that pre-Trump era when the Times distrusted the FBI, unlike today, when it reliably comes to the domestic surveillance bureau’s defense when investigating Trump (click “expand”):
In a 7,800-word article published last week by the British monthly magazine Standpoint, which teased the piece on its cover as “Martin Luther King and #MeToo,” Mr. Garrow provides new details about the F.B.I.’s tactics alongside graphic descriptions from documents recounting alleged group sex in bugged hotel rooms....
While Dr. King’s infidelities have long been known in broad outline, Mr. Garrow concludes by saying that the new material -- including an explosive allegation that he witnessed, and even encouraged, a rape committed by a fellow minister -- “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.”
The revelations have sparked a heated reaction. But so far, it has been as much about the ethics and evidentiary standards of Mr. Garrow’s article as it is about Dr. King.
Some fellow historians credit Mr. Garrow with finding potentially important new information about both Dr. King and the F.B.I. attempts to discredit him. But others are denouncing him for publishing incendiary claims generated as part of an F.B.I. smear campaign, without offering any corroborating evidence. And some are accusing him of running roughshod over the privacy of the women with whom Dr. King was allegedly involved.
But in an interview shortly after the online publication of the article -- which he said had been rejected by more than two dozen outlets, including The New York Times -- Mr. Garrow, 66, said he wrote about the alleged rape and the other sexual material in the documents out of a sense of obligation.
Schuessler was allergic to the allegations against the liberal civil rights icon (click “expand”):
As for his claim that Dr. King was an enthusiastic witness to an alleged rape, it rests on a single paragraph in an F.B.I. summary of what supposedly took place in January 1964 in a Washington hotel room where King was staying. There, according to the summary, another minister (now deceased) and unspecified other men discussed which of the “several women ‘parishioners’” brought to the room by the minister would be “suitable for natural and unnatural acts.” After one of the women objected, the other minister “immediately and forcibly raped her.”
Mr. Garrow also quotes a handwritten annotation in the margin that reads: “King looked on, laughed and offered advice.”
Some historians have strongly criticized Mr. Garrow for hanging an explosive allegation on an anonymous handwritten annotation....
Mr. Garrow said he believed the typed summary, and the handwritten addition, were based on the actual contents of the tapes, rather than an embellishment. Citing a passage in his 1981 book about the F.B.I., he noted that he first heard hints of an alleged assault around 1980, when he interviewed several Justice Department lawyers who he said had heard the tapes.
Schuessler threw in some extraneous personal attacks against Garrow:
Mr. Garrow, also the author of a well-regarded 1,000-page legal history of Roe v. Wade, similarly objected to questions about a 2002 episode at Emory University’s law school. At that time, a school official in charge of the facilities said Mr. Garrow “went into an uncontrollable rage” and grabbed her by the wrists while yelling at her about construction noise, according to an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The official also said she had complained for years about abusive treatment of her and other employees by Mr. Garrow.
Schuessler was concerned the right wing would seize on his findings:
Other scholars also criticized what they called the sensationalized presentation of the claims, which were quickly seized on by the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who called Dr. King “quite a sicko,” and by social media trolls suggesting statues of him should be taken down.
It’s understandable that those who admire Martin Luther King Jr. would want to shield him from such awful allegations, especially in a racially sensitive #MeToo era where statues are indeed removed and names taken off schools and street signs. But the paper’s feverish, blame-the-messenger response would seem to fall outside the bounds of objective scrutiny of a historical figure.
Garrow’s stock has fallen at the paper as his biographies have become more critical of liberal heroes. Sounding more like a wounded Obama fan than a serious book reviewer, The Times’s former chief book critic Michiko Kakutani lambasted Garrow’s Obama biography Rising Star, complaining that it “almost reads like a Republican attack ad -- devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian...a crude screed.”