As with every third Monday of January, today we celebrate the legacy of a great man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Amidst the commemoration and the adulation, between the pondering of how wonderful he was and how much he helped change America for the better, we often forget that Dr. King was much more than an idol for us to worship, he was a flesh and blood man who's flaws and mistakes make him a far more compelling inspiration than the hollow marble bust that now resides among our other icons in the National Mall.
A man like Dr. King is of course very easy to idolize, his speeches stir the blood and make the hairs on the back of your neck rise up unlike anything our mediocre "leaders" seem to muster. Even President Obama's rather decent oratory pales in comparison to even the most routine lines delivered by Martin Luther King on a bad day. And unlike current leaders who hide behind layers of dark sunglass, earpiece wearing security, never putting themselves in any actual danger while pushing for this and that righteous fight, Dr. King was there, in the trenches, getting bitten by dogs, hosed and beaten by corrupt police, and placed in damp dark jail cells along with the lowliest civil rights marcher. Beyond all that, he kept pushing further, kept shaking up the status quo, knowing full well that his fate would be the assassin's bullet, like so many martyrs in the cause of human liberty before him.
While his life, his struggle, and his sacrifice is about as inspiring a story as you could get, with far more heroism than what even the great comic book writers could imagine, we do him and indeed ourselves a disservice by seeing only the symbol and not the man behind it. It is easy to look up to him, to praise him in a safe and easy way as so many leaders, pundits, and otherwise influential people will today. This is easy because it does not require us to actually change ourselves, to really follow his example. When we see this towering figure and forget about who he really was, and especially when we forget about the countless ordinary men and women as lesser known leaders that stood alongside him at the very gates of hell in the South, it becomes too hard for us to muster up the courage and face the demons lurking in our own society. We think to ourselves: "yeah, he was a great man, but me, I'm not like him, I have so many problems, so many weaknesses, how could I ever do what he did?" Well, the reality is that MLK was no saint, he was no superhero, he was a man, a man who did some bad things and struggled with his own problems.
All the evidence we have today, including the unscrupulous wire-tapping and investigations of the paranoid racist J. Edgar Hoover, indicate Dr. King had many, many extra-marital affairs throughout his life, especially as he became more well-known and more successful as a civil rights leader. This put a terrible strain on his marriage and left him constantly racked with guilt, even as he was unable or unwilling to resist the urge to cheat. We also know that Dr. King likely appropriated or plagiarized many of his speeches from lesser known activists, preachers and others. There is even evidence to suggest he plagiarized parts of his dissertation, putting into question not just his honesty, but also the very title that we normally confer upon him.
As a younger man I refused to believe these aspects of Dr. King's life, thinking them to be the inventions of lesser men trying to tear down his name and bring notoriety to their own. As I delved more into his life, it became clear that much of it these things are likely true and this left me both disillusioned with this man I once saw as an unquestioned titan of truth and justice. As I progressed in my intellectual and moral development though, as the easy and uncompromising ideals of youth gave way to the more tempered and measured virtues of a real life lived, I began to see these once troublesome aspects of MLK's life as contributing to his legacy rather than diminishing it.
At this point in my life, what inspires me about Dr. King is not any-kind of moral perfection or greatness, but rather the fact that despite his flaws and weaknesses, he still managed to make a difference in a way that even more saintly men could not. It fascinates me that a man who should have let his vices destroy him somehow managed to rise above them and make a difference. It shows me and I hope it would show all of us, that we have no excuse for our apathy, that we cannot, as I have done on many occasions, use our failures and faults as a shield to hide us from the duties we have towards each other and the world. This sober and unobstructed view of Dr. King and his life lets us understand that we need not be gods among men to change things. We need only to be open to the universal truths all around us and have the courage to fight for those truths no matter the cost.
For Dr. King that self-evident and timeless truth was that all of us are born as free human beings of equal worth, and that justice was to be achieve not through force of arms, not by copying the means of our enemies, but rather through a self-sacrificing love that transcends all forms of earthly power and can shatter the very spears of empires. Indeed, it is that struggle and that love, which ultimately redeemed him as a man and can perhaps redeem us as a species, bringing the nobility out of the barbarism in all of us.
Each woman and each man must find the truths that they are willing to fight for themselves; it is not something that his legacy or any other can impart. Yet all of us can follow his example in not letting the fact that we are terribly imperfect beings prevent us from doing what has to be done for the sake of things larger than ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. like all great leaders did the impossible because he refused to let his weaknesses and his mistakes define him as a human being or hold him back from the task at hand. The point is we are all unworthy, none of us are "chosen", and even the best of us suffer from vices and temptations not easily overcome. As MLK reminded us though, there is a "moral universe" and it "bends towards justice". His defining legacy is that he sacrificed for the sake of that arc and aligned himself with it, allowing a small weak man to become something more, something better, and far more powerful force for good than he himself could have imagined. Such is a path open to us all, no matter our past, no matter our mistakes, we can all make a difference, we can all make it to the mountain top.