We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions. I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.
Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story. In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes. (The tapes will be released in 2027).
Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians. Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research. Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos. (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.” Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources. He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”
From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute. It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.
I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this. I will monitor this as best I can.
Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true. Historians will offer interpretations. The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications. I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks. And, I might add, this is a good thing. Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.
Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos. They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.
Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources. This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover. I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments. The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process. I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes. Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.
We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife. Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.
And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King? This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people. Stay tuned.
This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly. (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here). Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.