Today we celebrate the work of Martin Luther King. This is the 20th federal King holiday. Most of the population is too young to remember Dr. King in life, but there are few Americans who do not know his name and heroic stature in the civil right movement. Over the years, I think, the holiday has come to be more about the movement, and less about the man. Which is as it should be. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the necessary man in the civil rights movement, keeping the heart of it non-violent and focused on the prize. But it was the movement that was sacred, not the man.
The civil rights movement is now part of America’s sacred history. For many secular liberals I know, it is the only sacred part of American history. I live in Kentucky, where the effects of the Civil War are all around us. In years of watching Kentucky kids in quick recall (quiz bowl) tournaments, however, I have been impressed that the leaders and moments of the Civil War are not part of their basic knowledge – only the bookish kids know Lee and Grant, Gettysburg and Antietam. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, is obligatory. Rosa-Parks-Montgomery-bus-boycott is all one word. And it is always “the reverend doctor Martin Luther King junior.” The civil rights movement has now been absorbed into all-American history.
Martin King the man, though, is subject to less and less reverent treatment. Taylor Branch’s magisterial history of King and civil rights movement has reached the third volume, which is necessarily thick with King’s frequent and long-running adulteries. Previous volumes, and many other works on King which have been written and will be written, documented his plagiarism of parts of the dissertation that puts the doctor in Dr. King. Coretta King has been, I think, heroic in keeping her husband’s memory alive. His family, though, is clearly dysfunctional, with his children living on the commercialization of his memory, and squabbling in public about how best to capitalize on his name.
I am a Calvinist. I know that everyone (yes, especially me) is a sinner. I am not surprised at how much selfishness, short-sightedness, and even evil there is in the world; instead, I am even more grateful for goodness and generosity. So for me, I am not disillusioned to know Martin Luther King’s flaws. They are wrong and sad, but they do not make him unusually bad, or even unusual. Nor do King’s flaws undermine his heroic and crucial achievements as a leader of the great movement for the redemption of America from its original sin.
So cherish King Day, this living holiday of America’s civil religion. Teach the whole man, and his whole works.