America: Untold Stories (exclusive 7/98)

Our lives are haunted by secrets — things kept from us by society, friends, even our own families. Just when we think the whole story is on the table, another revelation can force us to reconsider how we look at the world, our leaders, and ourselves.

This truism was brought home for me recently during a visit to Kentucky, where I spent several days with one of that state’s most beloved civil rights leaders, Georgia Davis Powers. Invited to discuss a book she’s writing about one of her ancestors, I learned some surprising things not only about the suppressed history of one Black family, but also about the secret life of Martin Luther King.

Thirty years ago, on April 4, King was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis motel as he prepared to support striking Black sanitation workers there. Although James Earl Ray initially confessed to the crime (later recanting), doubts about the full circumstances persist. Last week, for example, former FBI agent Donald Wilson, who investigated the murder, presented evidence he claims to have found in Ray’s car — slips of paper that may support charges of a conspiracy involving federal agents. Wilson didn’t produce the evidence earlier, he says, because he didn’t trust other investigators and feared for his family’s safety. The King family still questions the official version and was eager to see Ray get a new trial before he died of liver cancer.

But it’s easier, in a way, to accept that King was the victim of a conspiracy than to face other facts about his life. As Georgia Powers put it, "He was a great man — but he was still a man." Like Bill Clinton, whose accomplishments as president have been largely overshadowed by relentless investigation of alleged personal misbehavior, King was hounded by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to discredit the civil rights leader by exposing alleged "womanizing." Today, many civil rights leaders dismiss such charges as mean-spirited attempts to sully King’s memory and discredit his historic achievements.

Georgia Powers certainly has no intention of doing that. On the contrary. She worked closely with King in the 60s, organizing to end discrimination in public accommodations and employment and pass open housing laws. In 1967, she became the first Black and first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate, a position she held with distinction for the next 20 years. During her first term, less than a month before King’s death, she spearheaded passage of a statewide open housing bill.

But her relationship with King was more than professional. As she revealed in her 1995 book, I Shared the Dream, their work together led to a love affair that continued until the last moments of his life. Keeping that secret for almost three decades, she went public only after other civil rights leaders released inaccurate accounts of their relationship and the events surrounding King’s death. She was particularly upset by comments in an autobiography written by Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend and confidante. Though willing to attribute Abernathy’s misstatements to illness and a poor memory, she felt compelled to set the record straight. "When Dr. King’s life is researched," she writes, "I want the part relating to me to be available in my own words. It is my own history as well, both the good and the bad."

It began with mutual admiration, she explains, and "progressed into a deepening friendship in which we shared opinions, confidences, and laughed often." She called him "M.L.," and he called her "Senator." But King was under tremendous pressure, and ultimately turned to Georgia for intimacy and emotional support. Although they sometimes discussed issues and strategies, his main unmet need was time to let his hair down and set his cares aside.

"Some people called him a prophet, and compared him with Jesus," she recalls. While she does believe that he was divinely inspired, "I knew Martin had all the imperfections, foibles, and passions of a mortal man." A meticulous person with an affection for silk suits, he enjoyed laughter and jokes, barbecued ribs and soul foods, not to mention the company of attractive women. In short, she says, "He had a good appetite for life."

He also had a strong sense that he wouldn’t get to see his visions come to pass. Tired and melancholy one night, he told her, "I’m just as normal as any other man. I want to live a long life, but I know I won’t get to."

Georgia was in Memphis with King on the day he died. The previous night he’d confided, "I’ve never been more physically and emotionally tired." On April 4 they waited most of the day to see if a temporary restraining order against the planned demonstration would be lifted. But King was adamant. Regardless of what the court decided, he promised, "We will march on Monday." When Abernathy asked whether he feared what might happen, King answered slowly, "I’d rather be dead than afraid."

As the meeting broke up and the group prepared for a soul food dinner, King brushed past Georgia on his way out the door. "I’m looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening," he said softly. "Don’t make any plans." They were the last words he ever spoke to her. Moments later he was shot.

Looking back, she still regrets that her actions may have hurt others, especially King’s wife, Coretta. But despite those feelings, she’s never regretted her decision, realizing that it wasn’t merely some tawdry affair. "When we were together," she recalls, "the rest of the world, whose problems we knew and shared, was far away. Our time together was a safe haven for both of us. There we could laugh and speak of things others might not understand. He trusted me, and I him, not to talk about it."

As the years passed, however, Georgia became increasingly uncomfortable with the rumors that distorted their relationship. She also realized that her life, like so many, is full of such hidden truths. One was her ancestry; although she still doesn’t know the identity of her father’s father, she eventually learned that he was White. Another involved her great aunt, Celia Mudd, who was born into slavery in 1859 but eventually inherited the rural Kentucky farm on which she’d spent all her life. As a child, Georgia often asked how it happened. But for her parents and other family members, this was apparently a secret better left untouched.

During the last few years, however, she’s managed to uncover most of the true story. The key was a will dated March 15, 1902, in which Sam Lancaster, whose father had bought the Nelson County farm over 60 years earlier, left it to his most trusted employee — the former slave whom Georgia knew as Aunt Celia. That fateful decision led to a court battle with Sam’s surviving brother, and the predictable rumors that Celia and Sam had been lovers. But a medical examination proved conclusively that this was impossible. At the age of 42, Celia Mudd was still a virgin.

Although the case went to Kentucky’s highest court, most newspapers declined to report about it. A Black woman inheriting more than 500 acres of land from a White man apparently wasn’t considered news. Neither was the fact that Celia Mudd went on to become a local philanthropist, admired by Blacks and Whites alike.

In March, I visited the farm on which Aunt Celia spent her life. Stepping into the old slave quarters where she was born, I reflected on how much we still don’t understand about that time, when Whites, however kindly they treated Blacks, believed that they were no more than property. And I also thought about how we too often choose to ignore or downplay the racial inequities that continue to this day. Within two years, for example, Blacks will account for half of all AIDS cases in the US, although they’re only 12 percent of the population. The number of young Black men in prison is heavily disproportionate to Whites, public spending still produces a two-class public school system, and racially-motivated violence plagues even the most superficially tranquil communities.

Rather than petty arguments about the need to apologize for past wrong-doing, whether it’s slavery or a personal weakness, what we need instead is the strength to face our own and society’s uncomfortable secrets — to openly acknowledge them, and also to forgive. After all, leaders, and even prophets, are human beings. So, let’s give them, as well as ourselves, a break.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom.