Monday, January 21, 2008
Remembering a Mortal Man, Not a God
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, deeds, and impassioned rhetoric should serve as an inspiration to all of us. Through non-violent resistance and skillful diplomacy, he ushered in massive positive change. His life and accomplishments are proof positive that one person can make a difference to a great degree. Else we feel powerless, disenfranchised, and limited by what we can do in our lives, we can look to the life of Dr. King and draw a sense of hope and optimism. In these skeptical, cynical times, such attitudes are often in short supply. However, let us not forget on this day of reflection that the man deserving of a holiday to commemorate his numerous positive accomplishments was just that: a man.
Over the years, we have learned that approximately one-third of King's doctoral dissertation at Boston University was plagiarized, though apologist scholars have attempted to redefine the definition of the regrettable practice and thus excuse it by saying that the sections of the paper supposedly copied from another source are in keeping with Black folk preaching traditions. As a teacher, I am encouraged to draw a very fine line about plagiarism and adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards those who engage in it. To me, plagiarism is flagrant cheating and offenders receive a zero score on any paper where I detect it. I wonder if we were discussing someone other that Dr. King that we would be as forgiving. In this day and age of where punitive solutions and resolute punishment are massive temptations, if Dr. King were anyone else would we be so willing to look past this sort of behavior?
Evidence of his womanizing and marital infidelity have been revealed from a variety of sources, some of them, like J. Edgar Hoover's intrusive and illegally zealous FBI surveillance, clearly designed to discredit him. Others with much less of a motive to detract from his legacy have stepped forward, most notably close King associate Ralph Abernathy, to propose that King engaged in sexual relations with women other than his wife Coretta Scott. In recent memory, particularly in reference to the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, the conduct, attitudes, and prevailing opinions of many prove that more than a mere handful of Americans find conduct like this morally objectionable. Still, may I also point out how many marriages end in divorce and how many men cheat on their spouses?
However, in our desire to find fault, let us not forget that King was a mere mortal. Like every human being, he had flaws and imperfections. In our desire to lionize him and set him up high above us as the moral champion he was, may we never fail to remember that he was just as imperfect as the rest of us. My ultimate motive in pointing this out is to provide a complete picture of his life, NOT to lessen the impact he had upon our country, nor to criticize his legacy. In my opinion, it makes me feel more comforted, not less comforted, to realize that one of the greatest leaders of the Twentieth Century struggled with many of the same issues we face in our own lives. The complete King was riddled with complexities and paradoxes very much in keeping with the nature of human existence. To see him on godlike terms is, in my opinion, to miss the point altogether. Hear the good news! A person, even a person with problems and weaknesses CAN make substantial change in the lives of millions. That, to me, is truly inspiring.