Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLK’s Adultery: Does It Change His Legacy?


by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse UniversityScholarship in Action 

Every year on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there are some people who raise questions about Dr. King's sex life. They openly ask if the legendary pastor and civil rights leader ever deceived his wife, and some have even gone as far as referring to him as a "sexual degenerate". Conversations about King's alleged adultery tend to be built on three interesting and ultimately incorrect, assumptions: 1) That Dr. King's legacy is somehow impacted by his infidelity, 2) that he is less likely than other men to cheat on his wife, and 3) that it is somehow sacrilegious to discuss his flaws in public.

First and foremost, the idea that King's memory as a great American patriot is tarnished by his infidelity is both illogical and problematic. A great man is not defined by his weaknesses, but by his strengths. Regardless of what Dr. King may have done during the course of his marriage, those actions are almost completely disconnected from the manner through which he inspired billions with his courage and led people of color to the life we share today. It is our fault, not his, that Dr. King has been placed on a pedestal so high that we've forgotten that he was human.

Nearly every single week, I am asked to comment on the financial implications of a celebrity divorce. In nearly every single case, adultery is cited as one of the reasons for the break-up. Dr. and Mrs. King were, in many ways, just another celebrity couple. With Dr. King hitting the road most days out of the year, he sacrificed time to the world that he much rather would have spent with his wife (I've always felt that neither Dr. King, nor Malcolm X, should have ever gotten married, since it put their wives and children in danger). Mix this with the fact that women were likely throwing themselves at King on a regular basis, and you've got the recipe for scandal.


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