Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dead Man’s Rule

Roughly half of the states in America have enacted a version of the Dead Man's Rule.  Generically, they are various permutations of laws enacted to prevent one party to a litigation in providing live testimony against another party to the litigation who has died during the pendency of the litigation.  These laws are predicated in a basic belief in fairness, where dead persons are no longer able to deny adverse testimony or defend themselves with their own statements.

The laws do not prevent a litigant from prevailing in a legitimate dispute, but they narrow the manner in which the litigation may proceed.  At least half of the states have determined that it is unfair to ascribe words to a dead person who is not alive to refute them.

This body of jurisprudence comes to mind when reviewing the current controversy regarding the late Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and his alleged lurid sexual predilections that have been recently "revealed."

Admittedly, rumors of MLK's penchant for womanizing and infidelity have been bruited about for decades.  But infidelity is not proof, as currently alleged, that MLK was also sanguine about rape and found the act funny.  Perhaps there is a tape that proves that particular allegation.  But whether the tape was authenticated, or King's reaction taken out of context, the allegations have yet to be proved or disproved.

The actual recordings are sealed until 2027.  Supporting evidence consists of an alleged synopsis of the tape.  Incredibly, if such a rape actually occurred, those recording the event did not intervene.

King can no longer defend himself against allegations, sexual or otherwise.  And even if the allegations ultimately are proven accurate, do they negate the incredible contribution King made both to black America and to the nation as a whole?  Historical giants and contemporaries of King, such as Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, were known serial womanizers as married men.  Yet their auras were not diminished by their personal behavior.  Moreover, Ted Kennedy, who as senator from Massachusetts was ultimately revered as the Lion of the Senate, admitted to leaving the scene of an automobile accident where a young woman, not his wife, drowned.

King was a man who espoused nonviolent protest.  Even when coarsely imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, he did not waver in his core beliefs.  In a heartbreakingly beautiful letter, written from jail known interchangeably as "The Letter from Birmingham Jail" and "The Negro Is Your Brother," King steadfastly maintained that nonviolent resistance to racism was the correct response.  King's letter was a heartfelt response to sympathetic white clergy who felt his nonviolent but somewhat confrontational battle belonged in the courts and not in sit-ins or Washington, D.C. nonviolent protests.  King disagreed and ultimately prevailed.

Whether King's detractors are eventually proven correct, they do not diminish the gift of peaceful transformation King gave our nation.  Unlike President Obama, King strove not to alter the underlying core of America, but to improve her.

Photo credit: Dave Newman.

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