Give King The Respect He Earned – Sunday, January 14, 2001 – Published in The Concord Monitor
There are still people who say Martin Luther King Jr. shouldn’t be celebrated with a holiday. Here’s why he’s a hero despite his flaws.
As we all know, New Hampshire took a long time to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday. This was not due to some accident. there was a sizable opposition within the state to this celebration.
Various reasons have been voiced for why King did not deserve this recognition. These include a negative assessment of King’s character, especially his marital infidelities, the charge that King was a communist, and the conclusion that he was not worthy of an honor of this magnitude.
Because I believe this is a holiday we should celebrate, I want to make the case for why the state was correct in honoring King with a holiday. I also want to respond to the arguments of the opponents.
The primary reason for the holiday is the superb quality of King’s service to the nation. With style and passion, King led the struggle for civil rights for all Americans. Devising many creative strategies, he repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to make equality a reality.
He certainly did not have to play this role. He came from a comfortable background. He could have lived a private life as a prosperous local minister in Atlanta. Instead, accepting the challenge of leadership, he made choices that meant he would risk his life and live in peril constantly. Virtually his entire adult life, King encountered death threats, culminating in his assassination at age 39.
It is hard to imagine the world King confronted before the civil rights movement. Black people could not vote freely, eat at restaurants, buy houses in white neighborhoods, rent motel rooms, go to certain public schools, get certain types of jobs, swim at public pools or drink at public water fountains.
Belief in the superiority of the white race justified this institutionalized discrimination. The Klan and other white racists backed up the established order by terrorizing, lynching and murdering.
The courage displayed by King and his cohorts in confronting this vicious system was enormous. It is easy to forget that not only did King often fail to receive police protection, but he also had to contend with the police assisting his enemies.
He was the object of constant snooping by the FBI. In last 1964, the FBI sent King a cut-and-spliced tape of his sexual encounters with numerous women. Accompanying the tape was a letter in which the FBI suggested King should kill himself because of his alleged moral depravity. Yet King never hated his political foes or denied their humanity even in the face of their dirty tricks.
King was not in it for the money. He never cashed in on his leadership role. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he gave all $54,000 to the civil rights movement. He earned about $200,000 a year in annual speaking fees, averaging 300 speeches a year. He gave the movement most of that money.
His family lived in a rented house until 1965, when his wife prevailed on him to buy a very modest house in Atlanta. King actually felt guilty about owning a house because he considered it an unnecessary luxury.
These days our societal heroes, whether CEOs or professional athletes, demand multimillion-dollar contracts and signing bonuses. King’s life was a sharp rebuke to that mentality. He sided with the poor and oppressed and he never separated himself from everyday people.
In appreciating King, there is a danger that he will be seen as the plastic Black Superman who gave the “I Have A Dream” speech. Freezing an image, even a fabulous image, is unreal and phony.
There is no need to whitewash King’s flaws. He was very human. He had a weakness for beautiful women. He carried on several extended extramarital love affairs as well as many one-night stands. For long stretches, he lived on the road away from his family. He battled depression and guilt.
Those who opposed a King holiday because of his sexual liaisons have a narrow view of character. There is a peculiar desire in this country to expect heroes to be perfect and pure. the hero falls off the pedestal if he has a shadow side. With that kind of standard, we won’t have any more heroes.
In his fine book, I May Not Get there With You, Michael Eric Dyson argues that King’s character cannot be understood through isolated incidents or a fixation on flaws. Character must be understood through the long view. King stands up well when his public accomplishments are balanced against his private failings.
As for the charge that King was a communist, the accusers lack a shred of supporting evidence. King was not a party member or sympathizer.
Yet in fairness to his accusers, one caveat is in order. King was a dangerous man. He actively opposed the status quo of his day. It is this radical dimension of King that we risk losing as his image is sanitized.
A Challenge To Us All
Had he remained alive, King would have been terribly disappointed with our blind denial of racism, our indifference to the poor and our excessive militarism. He would have been appalled at our self-satisfaction.
All holidays have become thin excuses for three-day weekends. It is ironic that opponents think the King holiday is unworthy. How about Columbus Day or Presidents Day? Compared to these holidays, the King holiday is a model of relevance. At least it connects to real unresolved issues.
The focus on the King holiday should not be to create some cult of personality. The best way we can honor King is to engage the issues he engaged. In our own lives, we can make the fight against racism and poverty our own passionate reality.