Those of us who study black history have always heard rumors of an alleged relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. (then known as “ML”) and a white woman in his younger days.
Well, a historian found this woman and published a book about it, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, which delves more deeply into their relationship ... just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s murder.
In an excerpt for Politico, Patrick Parr says that he’d first been intrigued by this young white woman after reading a 1986 biography of King, Bearing the Cross, by David Garrow. In it, Garrow describes a serious love affair between King and this woman named Betty while King was a 19-year-old studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. (he’d graduated from Morehouse that same year).
Parr quotes the Rev. Pius J. Barbour as having said that King “never recovered” from this relationship and that its unraveling left him a “man with a broken heart.”
In the adapted excerpt, Parr admits that he searched high and low for Betty (last name Moitz), whom he eventually found. He writes:
From the start, Moitz and King’s relationship was anything but carefree. Almost all of King’s friends, including Reverend Barbour, tried to discourage him from staying with Betty, knowing what an interracial relationship would mean for his future.
“I thought it was a dangerous situation that could get out of hand, and if it did get out of hand it would smear King,” his Crozer classmate Cyril Pyle recalled in a 1986 interview. “It would make his future hard for him.”
Moitz, who recently died at the age of 89, told Parr that she and King were “madly, madly in love, the way young people can fall in love.”
He outlines how the two met—King was a student and Moitz’s grandmother and then mother both worked as dietitians at Crozer. The family lived on campus, and Moitz, who studied at the Moore College of Art, would come to visit her mother often. And that’s where she met a brilliant young man from Atlanta. Who was actually quite conservative in his youth.
“Crozer was known as a very radical religious institution,” she told Parr, “so I was surprised to hear from ML himself [that he] had more conservative beliefs.
“He would talk, and talk and talk,” Moitz said.
At first they discussed his time in the South and how different it was from the idealized culture within the seminary. He didn’t yet know how, but according to Moitz, “one thing ML knew at age 19 was that he could change the world.”
Parr writes that many of King’s classmates and friends knew of the affair—some supportive (one even saying that Moitz was so tan, she could “pass”), and some, like Cyril Pyle, his classmate from Panama, not so much: “I knew about it, thought it was bad, but I didn’t want to get involved.”
Young ML kept the relationship from his family, and he was especially concerned about the affair getting back to his mother, who he knew would be “disappointed.”
“He was worried what she’d think,” said Moitz.
Yet, after some time, the couple began to get bolder and went out on dates in public. Parr writes:
ML would have known that dining at a predominantly white restaurant was a risky proposition, not only for himself but for Betty as well, but their relationship was a way for him to test the limits of northern culture. Such boundary-pushing becomes easier when one starts to fall in love, and according to Betty, that’s exactly what was happening.
Eventually King went to a married friend for advice, Horace “Whit” Whitaker, who said he dreaded telling King his thoughts about the romance’s viability.
“I’m not saying he wasn’t mature enough for that kind of experience, but I remember talking to him about that kind of marital situation … and we had talked about it from the standpoint that if he intended going back to the South and pastoring at a local church, that that might not be an acceptable kind of relationship in a black Baptist church, and I think he would be valuing that in light of whether or not it was a workable situation, knowing his own particular sense of call,” Whitaker said.
We know that Coretta Scott King was the woman Martin Luther King Jr. eventually married.
Parr writes that the only time King ever made a reference to Moitz in public came in a 1964 MLK biography by Lerone Bennett titled, What Matter of Man, which quoted King as saying, “She liked me and I found myself liking her. But finally, I had to tell her resolutely that my plans for the future did not include marriage to a white woman.”