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‘We Were Madly, Madly in Love’: The Untold Story of MLK’s White Girlfriend

Historians in the News
tags: MLK, Betty Moitz, MLKs Girlfriend, Patrick Parr



Patrick Parr has written for the Atlantic and History Today, among others. In 2014 he was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship. www.patrickparr.com

It took me a long time to find Betty Moitz.

I had first learned her full name while reading Bearing the Cross, the 1986 biography about Martin Luther King Jr., written by David Garrow. In the book, Garrow briefly describes a serious relationship between King and a young white woman around the same age, named Betty. They had met at Crozer Theological Seminary, in Chester, Pennsylvania, at the time, where King was a divinity student from the age of 19 until 22, when he graduated in May 1951. In Bearing the Cross, Garrow quoted a close friend and mentor of King’s at the time, Rev. Pius J. Barbour, who said the relationship had left King as a “man with a broken heart. He never recovered.”

In a way, I never recovered from that quote. As I wrote my own book about King, I wasn’t satisfied with such a short description of such an apparently devastating relationship. Garrow was the first biographer to discover Betty’s last name, and, fortunately for me, buried it in a heavyweight endnote at the back of the book. That endnote took me on two cross-country flights, spurred dozens of calls to wrong numbers and knocks on countless doors of people I thought might have known Betty. They didn’t, but I left my business card anyway, and eventually, one of those people found someone who might know Betty, and that person sent me an address, to which I sent a letter. It worked.

From the start, Moitz and King’s relationship was anything but carefree. Almost all of King’s friends, including 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 1986interview. “It would make his future hard for him.”

But Betty recalls that time, and the young King, with fondness anyway. In our yearlong correspondence and one long meeting in January 2016, Betty, who recently passed away at the age of 89, told me the story of their relationship and just how close King came to walking away from his future plans for her. “We were madly, madly in love, the way young people can fall in love,” she told me during our conversation at her home. ...

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