Questions about the racial identity of a well-known activist in the "Black Lives Matter" movement have stirred controversy and drawn a blistering response. But the central question remains: Does his race matter?
Shaun King, a blogger who identifies as black and rose to prominence in the aftermath of a police shooting last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, pushed back hard against claims on conservative Internet sites that both of his parents are white and that he had exaggerated an assault he endured two decades ago while attending high school in Versailles, Kentucky.
King posted a response on his blog last week in which he called those claims lies, and said he had always known the white man listed on his birth certificate was not his biological father.
"It is horrifying to me that my most personal information, for the most nefarious reasons, has been forced out into the open and that my private past and pain have been used as jokes and fodder to discredit me and the greater movement for justice in America," King wrote. "I resent that lies have been reported as truth and that the obviously racist intentions of these attacks have been consistently downplayed at my expense and that of my family."
There’s a long history of attacking the motives and backgrounds of people involved in civil rights movements — whether it’s calling into question political leanings or racial identity based on skin color, something King is confronting now and former NAACP leader Walter White grappled with near the beginning of the last century.
"Do I think his race matters?" said Vanderbilt University philosophy professor Lucius Outlaw Jr., an expert on social and racial issues. "And the question is to whom, and why does it matter? What difference does it make from the point of view of contributions to the movement? You don’t have to be black to say black lives matter."
Outlaw said those who measure King’s legitimacy by his skin color may be giving in to antiquated definitions of race, the old notion that one drop of black blood defines a person as African-American. He also likened King’s case to former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to identify herself as a woman, which he said should be her choice to make.
"Do we get to decide or does he have the option of deciding how he wants to identify?" Outlaw said of King.
The allegations surfaced on conservative blogs, including Breitbart.com and The Blaze. Bloggers posted a Kentucky birth certificate identifying a white man as King’s father. King said in a blog post last week that he had been told all his life that the man listed on the document isn’t his father, and that his biological father is a light-skinned black man with whom his mother had an affair.
Bloggers also published a police report from a March 1995 assault case at Woodford County High School in Kentucky in which the responding detective filled in a box identifying King as white as purported proof of his racial identity.
"His mother is white," said Keith Broughton, who investigated the assault and recalled meeting King and his mother in a local hospital. "I didn’t ask him if he was black or white. It was apparent to me that he was one or the other and he was there with his mother, so I just checked white."
King had written that racial tensions at his high school were reaching a boiling point when the fight occurred. In an interview with The Associated Press, Broughton said the fight happened because King was accused of threatening the suspect’s girlfriend over a broken compact disc.
Broughton said he was called to investigate the assault about 40 minutes after it was reported. He said the injuries he observed didn’t indicate that King was attacked by multiple people, a claim bloggers also questioned.
"I know that there were several people gathered around egging the fight on or whatever," Broughton said. "He took a pretty good beating and, with all those people standing around, was probably terrified that they were all going to whip him."
King, a leading voice in efforts to call attention to police brutality nationwide in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting, said on his blog that he missed 20 months of school because of the attack. But he said he would offer no further comment, and he did not respond to interview requests.
Bloggers also have accused King of misrepresenting his racial identity to earn a scholarship from Oprah Winfrey to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. Morehouse spokeswoman Elise Durham said the school wouldn’t comment about King but noted that the college doesn’t grant admission or offer scholarships based on race.
Damaging labels have long been applied to high-profile leaders, said University of Pittsburgh historian David Garrow, who has written extensively about the FBI’s efforts to label Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Communist.
"I think there are a lot of ad hominem sorts of attacks on people, and the rise of the web has made this dramatically worse," he said. "It used to be the only people listened to had editors in some fashion. The rise of the web has dramatically magnified marginal voices."
In this case, those voices belong to opponents of the cause, according to Mary Hooks, a campaign coordinator for Southerners On New Ground. She said the allegations against King are a distraction tactic that has been used against leaders in the past. Hooks, 33, said she and others follow King because of the work he’s doing regardless of his racial identity.
"We refuse for that to be a part of how we shape movements. I think that’s probably just them showing their frustration because there isn’t a sole person they can point to and say, ‘This is the one who’s leading the charge,’" Hooks said.
"In the climate that we have right now in the United States, what we should be looking to is the work that people are doing and how they’re positioning themselves."
If Shaun King did falsify his history he might have a credibility problem, said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, who specializes in ethnic political participation. She said that appeared to be what happened with Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP leader in Spokane, Wash., who identified herself as black but was revealed by others, including her parents, to be white.
But Gillespie said she isn’t sure King ever made anything up, which means he should be judged on his work.
"My first reaction to the story was, well, if he hasn’t lied to anyone, what’s the big deal?" she said. "You can be a white person and a leader in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement."