MLK and Cancellation

I'll use today's official celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an opportunity to offer a few observations about cancellation of people previously recognized as having accomplished great things, whether in the arts, politics, or otherwise. The term "cancel culture" is widely used and misused to mean many things. What I mean by cancellation is a kind of systematic re-evaluation that leads the public or a substantial portion of the public either to completely change their understanding of the person in question for the worse or to thenceforth caveat any praise of the person with a strongly negative addendum.

Sometimes cancellation comes from new revelations (or revelations to the general public of facts that were previously known or suspected only by a smaller group). Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and other celebrities whose work was widely praised but who turned out to be sexual predators are paradigmatic examples. Other times cancellation results from changing values. Incredibly, it has taken until the present and it is still not fully resolved, for our country to conclude that persons who fought for the Confederacy to preserve slavery should not be honored or that people who played an important role in the country's founding (like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison) should be understood as at-best problematic figures in light of the fact that they enslaved other human beings.

What has any of this to do with Dr. King? For many years, the FBI under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover illegally surveilled King and his associates in the hope of finding evidence that he was a communist and a hypocrite for presenting himself as a religious leader while engaging in extramarital affairs. The goal was to discredit King and the broader civil rights movement. Or worse. In 1964 King received a package and letter seeking to blackmail him into committing suicide. Evidence strongly suggests that the FBI sent it.

What did the FBI learn from its surveillance? We don't know all of the details because, while some of the FBI files have been revealed or described, the bulk have been sealed by a 1977 court order that will expire in 2027. What we do know strongly suggests that King was not a communist but that one of his closest associates and advisers, Stanley Levison, might well have been. There are also strong indications that King did indeed commit adultery and sometimes spoke crudely in private.

If, in 2027, the unsealed recordings and documents confirm what we currently know, that almost surely will not and certainly should not lead to a wholesale re-evaluation of Dr. King and his legacy. Especially in the early days of the civil rights movement, most sympathizers were on the political left, and some of them were former communists or still communists. Even if Levison was a paid agent of Moscow and even if Dr. King knew as much, it should not be discrediting that he worked cooperatively with Levison on their shared goals--roughly in the same way that it hardly discredits the U.S. fight against the Nazis in World War II that we cooperated with the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, we might count the fact (assuming it is a fact) that King was unfaithful to his wife as disappointing, but that sort of fact has not generally been understood to tarnish a leader's legacy, at least so long as it does not affect his public performance (as it did with President Bill Clinton, at least as a consequence of the Starr Report and resulting fallout). King's (assumed) infidelity looks a whole lot like the contemporary conduct of President John F. Kennedy, Jr.--which is typically noted as part of his persona but not thought to discredit any of his accomplishments. Indeed, it would be bizarre to say, for example, that Kennedy shouldn't be lauded for de-escalating the Cuban missile crisis because he cheated on his wife. So too with King. Some personal failings, even character flaws, are, if not exactly forgivable (because it is not the public's place to forgive private wrongs), largely irrelevant to a person's public accomplishments.

To be sure, in 1983, North Carolina arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms unsuccessfully sought to have the FBI material on Dr. King unsealed early because he thought that exposure would derail the momentum for the King holiday, but there is no reason to think that Helms was right about that. And by now, Dr. King is an almost-mythic figure, so that it would take an incredible revelation to lead to a substantial re-evaluation, much less cancellation.

It is highly unlikely that the files contain such a revelation. If there were any evidence that King had engaged in criminal conduct, there is every reason to believe that Hoover's FBI would have developed a case against him. In other settings in which ongoing covert surveillance programs revealed evidence of crime, the FBI developed its court-admissible evidence separately so as to avoid revelation of the covert surveillance. It surely could have done so with King. That it didn't strongly suggests that there was no evidence of criminality on King's part.

What about other figures? Suppose we learn that some beloved figure was secretly engaged in a great evil? Depending on the nature of the evil, we might completely re-evaluate the figure and their work. For example, if one accepts the portrayal of Mother Teresa in Christopher Hitchens's 1994 television documentary Hell's Angel, then one will see her as harming rather than ministering to the poor. One might then wish to cancel, in the sense of no longer honor, Mother Teresa. (I take no position on the question.)

In other settings, new information or the placing of greater weight on previously known information might lead to a subtler re-evaluation. For example, taking seriously the enormity of the fact that many of the founders of our nation were enslavers might lead us to view the country and its legal foundation in a different and less celebratory light than it has mostly been taught in our schools. Despite overstatements and inaccuracies, the 1619 Project appears to have been launched in this spirit. A somewhat less controversial effort along these lines is Jill Lepore's These Truths, which appropriately treats race and slavery as more central to the American project than in most prior accounts of U.S. history.

What about the heroes themselves? I addressed that question in an essay on this blog in August 2017 and have little to add to it, except to say that this problem will likely never go away for the following reasons: (1) It is difficult to celebrate an event or institution without concretizing it in the form of a person or persons who were instrumental in bringing it about; (2) all such persons have flaws; and (3) even people who were seen as virtually flawless in their day will have engaged in behavior that future generations come to question or even regard as evil.

That said, for now, and I expect for many years after the FBI files on Dr. King are unsealed, we should celebrate the man and his work.

Postscript: For an excellent discussion of the FBI and Dr. King, I highly recommend Beverly Gage's terrific book G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. King appears only in the later chapters of what is a very long book, but Hoover's story is itself fascinating.