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.


Dragon said...

Hmmm...while I see your point, and while our culture does have a tendency to deify important players, the holiday isn't about MLK the god, or MLK the man, it's about the ideals he preached and the social change his courage effected.

This is more of a footnote to history than information relevant to the celebration's intent, no?

Comrade Kevin said...

Indeed, and I do see your point. It is quite valid.

I see King's weaknesses as more than just mere footnotes to history. If we wanted to just celebrate his ideals and the social change he effected, then why not call it Civil Rights Commemoration Day instead?

Freida Bee said...

I do like the point of which you have written, that this one person, flawed though he was, made a significant impact on US (world?) history. This is something that it would be good for us to recall as a citizenry, that his nonviolent leadership and protesting were very impacting. As far as the war goes today, we are a disenfranchised people who feel protesting is ineffective, in general and have found elections to be disheartening at best.

kimono hime said...

I agree with your point and respect him more as a human than as anything larger than life. It would seem that the media does not agree with your take on King, though. Surprise, surprise.

"Still, may I also point out how many marriages end in divorce and how many men cheat on their spouses? "

Hm. Not mutually inclusive. Plenty of women cheat as well, and not all divorces occur due to infidelity. Just sayin'.

Comrade Kevin said...


You are correct.

The point I was trying to make is that an unfaithful man often is criticized more harshly by society (tacitly almost expected to act as such) than an unfaithful woman, though, as you note, neither gender has a monopoly on cheating.

Also, not all marriages end in divorce, but infidelity is certainly sufficient grounds!

The main point I was trying to get across is that our heroes are just as human as we are.