Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King: Great Man. Cheater.

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.


Anonymous said...

So, maybe it should be called "Civil Rights Day" or "Human Equality Day"?

You got me to thinking -- the only other day we celebrate on the notion of one man's contribution to our lives is Columbus Day.

For what it's worth... maybe not much... I can't recall the last Spaniard asked to lecture at my local institution of higher education about the man.

But heck, I can't even remember the last anybody asked to lecture at my local institution of higher education about his contribution, either.

Not quite sure why(?).

Michael Kruse said...

Every time I think of this aspect of King's life I think of a murderer and adulterer named David, King of Israel.

I think we do a disservice when we elevate flawed people to superhuman status. It makes us feel like we have to achieve some level of super status before we can be an instrument of good in the world. With God, all things are possible, even and especially through fallen human beings.

Gruntled said...

I agree with both of you -- it is the movement we celebrate, more than the man. There is a danger in elevating the man, any man (or woman). In the 19th century, Washington's birthday was a great national holiday. Even when I a kid, Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday were separate events, and the former usually a holiday. Columbus Day I think of as the Catholic ethnic holiday.

I took a slightly serious crack at drawing up the civil religion calendar recently, at

Anonymous said...

Fyi, Gruntled... I sent an e-mail link to that one to some of my friends.

SPorcupine said...

Being a child is simply having heroes.

Being a teen is figuring out that one hero has feet of clay, then another, and another, and another.

Becoming adult is partly realizing that everyone will fall short, including ourselves. I get it that adults need to know that part.

Nevertheless, I was jolted, shocked, pained by your headline. The main truth is that Dr. King was a hero, taking the lead in the working of mighty miracles in our lifetimes.

I can hear the Boss singing "Some day these childish dreams must end/To become a man and grow up to dream again."

I'm ready for a grown up understanding that only God is perfect, but some flawed humans do astoundingly wonderful things. I favor awe at what King accomplished, and I wouldn't put his flaws in the the same paragraph with that.

Michael Kruse said...

King was a very complex man living in a very complex time. The man wrestled with his own "demons" even as he wrestled with "demons" at work in the world. He came out on top. That is precisely what I find heroic.

If we diminish his flaws we elevate him to godhood. What he accomplished was inevitable because of his superhuman godlike abilities.

I am not superhuman. I am not godlike. Elevating him to this level makes his life unattainable for me. I have no hope of achieving it so why try?

On the other hand, I can wrestle with my personal demons and the demons of my time and be a hero who comes out on top. How do I know? I saw this flawed man do it.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched a Biography on Peter and I was rather amused; the main point of the program was that Peter was more or less a bonehead who could be counted on to screw things up left and right. One commentator even went so far as to muse that perhaps when Christ referred to Peter as the “rock” on which he’d build his church, he was referring to his skull density rather than his depth of faith.

The point is this; there has been only one man who was perfect (in my opinion anyway), and every accomplishment in the history of the world was made by imperfect beings who had flaws and made mistakes. MLK’s flaws stand out to us, but no more so than the short-comings of our other semi-deity historical figures. Washington, St. Paul, Gandhi, etc… all had their transgressions. I don’t know if it behooves us to focus on these problems or to leave them be and let them fade from the memory of history but one thing is for sure; it is the causes these men championed and the ideas they nurtured that deserve our backing even if their lifestyle choices fall short of our expectations.

A separate but related thought: From a strict Christian standpoint, aren’t all of these concepts (Civil Rights for example) really just gifts from God, thus the people who bring them to us are nothing more than vessels? Why do we expect perfection from mere vessels? It is equivalent to worshipping Mary as a God for bringing Jesus to earth, even though she really didn’t have any part in the matter. It’s not as if we can tell God “no” when we are commanded.

Gruntled said...

I am for heroes. I know they will be sinners. Some of them, though, are worse than they need to be. The movement is the main thing, but it is helpful to look honestly at the shortcomings of the leaders of even the best movements. They help me think about what kind of leader I should be.

ancho and lefty said...

Whatever you want to say about MLK, his voice lives in my mind. Everytime I hear him tell me that "mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord," I basically turn into a crying, babbling mess. I am so thankful that he had the time on earth that he did.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Ancho. When I hear Dr. King paraphrasing Moses in “I Have a Dream” it sends a chill down my spine and sometimes brings tears to my eyes. No doubt the man was an amazing speaker. “I have been to the top of the mountain, and I have seen the Promised Land.”

Anonymous said...

This Christmas break I learned from a relative who teaches in Virginia that MLK day there is called, at least in the public schools in Richmond, MLK Lee and Jackson day. The myth that the civil war was not about race ought to be put to sleep with this highly offensive mixing of Generals with the good Reverend.

Gruntled said...

Max Weber said that a charismatic prophet has a unique power because people respond to him or her, not just to the message. I do think King was uniquely valuable because his speaking mobilized people, and because he stuck to Christian non-violence.

If he had to endure the exposure of his personal life the way many national leaders do today, it would have diminished his charismatic power.

And, yes, the Civil War was primarily about slavery, and slavery had, over centuries, been transformed into a racial identity.

Michael Kruse said...

"I basically turn into a crying, babbling mess."

The ending of that whoe speech is where I loose it:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

(From the sermon “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered.)

LawMat said...

As evidenced by many great people, no one is without flaws or imperfections. We shouldn't expect otherwise.

You're correct in saying that it is the Movement that's more important but you should not separate the man from the Movement. It took courage and selflessness for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to shoulder the struggles of others while risking the lives of he and his family.

So within this context it's not necessary to uncover or even discuss MLK's flaws. MLK day honors what He did. MLK day celebrates changes brought about by his life, and ultimately His death. More importantly, that day should be a catalyst for another year of ensuring that everyone is "judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin."

Gruntled said...

King was indispensable. In particular, I think his synthesis of Gandhi and Christianity was crucial to the success of the civil rights movement. I don't think, though, that his weaknesses were necessary to his virtues. In taking him as a role model, which I think we should, it is worth knowing where to draw the line.

Anonymous said...

I like to call it Confederate Heroes Day or Robert E. Lee's Birthday.