Does Dr. King’s alleged adultery damage his legacy?

OPINION - 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...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

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.

I don’t doubt for a second that Dr. King was tempted by women he met on the road, for psychologists say that proximity to our love interest is one of the key indicators of whether or not we are faithful to our marital partners. Or to put it in R&B terms, “If you can’t love the want, you gotta love the one you’re with.” Whether or not we agree with these words, we certainly know that sexual motivation is one of the fundamental building blocks to the existence of all mankind.

Most ironic is that the women who chased Dr. King and helped him to violate his marital vows were likely out of the same communities and churches that would want to chastise King for his perceived hypocrisy. The story of the black church is similar to nearly any other church, where the words parishioners read from the holy book are rarely consistent with actions that occur behind closed doors. You won’t get much wide-eyed surprise from anyone in the black church by telling them a story about a respected pastor who cheated on his wife. This happens in thousands of churches across America, so why wouldn’t it happen with Dr. King?

This leads to a point about those who’ve chosen to dig up Dr. King’s dirty laundry and expose it to the public. The discussion of King’s weaknesses and imperfections presents us with a very thin and dangerous line. On one hand, by yanking Dr. King out of the grips of immortality, you create earth-shattering cognitive dissonance among those who truly believe that the spotless, glorious, excessively commercialized memory of Dr. King matches the reality of who the man actually was. For nearly every public figure in America, the image hardly matches the person behind it. But for some, revealing that King may have engaged in extramarital sex is like telling a 6-year-old that there is no Santa Claus.

On the other hand, those who remember that being perfect is not a requirement for being great are able to take Dr. King’s personal flaws in stride. They realize that, like millions of other young men with a healthy sex drive, King was likely tempted into doing things that he wasn’t supposed to do. This doesn’t imply that he didn’t love Coretta Scott King, and it doesn’t imply that he didn’t love all of us. It only suggests that he was as complex as the rest of us, and that his life as a public figure was hardly a reflection of the entirety of his existence.

For those who advocate for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to Dr. King’s choices, please come back to reality. The truth is that anyone who chooses a public life and accepts the benefits of media exposure must also deal with its consequences. Dr. King needed the media to tell the story of police brutality and the struggles of the Jim Crow South. Now, that very same media has maintained its intrigue with Dr. King and is seeking to tell the rest of his story. All of this is natural and will only tarnish King’s legacy for those who wish to pretend that he was perfect. But as the Tiger Woods scandal last year showed us, anyone seeking to maintain a perfect image in the eyes of the public has been set up for significant humiliation.

When it’s all said and done, Martin Luther King Day will continue to be one of the most cherished holidays of the year. It is also a day when all of us should be encouraged to study the legacy of Dr. King, what he stood for and how we can best maintain his powerful spirit.

Realizing that Dr. King is human and as flawed as the rest of us is probably a good thing, since it allows us to stop worshiping him as a God to remember that we can all be just as great. We shouldn’t spend all of our time remembering who Dr. King slept with, but only that he had a dream when he was sleeping. Fulfilling that dream should continue to be our focus.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit>