Talk about paradoxes…
On April 4, 1968 civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated at the age of 39 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as his horrified mistress remained inside his room. Since that day the resume of the man we’ve sainted with a national holiday has been scrubbed clean, Hallmark-carded and buried in an ocean of idolization and denial.
Why do we do this?
Is it merely out of our desire for perpetual protection of perceived perfection?
Dr. King appeared less than concerned about his own image. In a 1989 CSPAN interview his closest friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy said, “Dr. King did not want to be a saint or viewed as a saint. He was just a human being, capable of becoming and producing and leading his people out of the wilderness of segregation into the Promised Land.”
But that didn’t stop us.
Within hours of King’s death began his untouchable enshrinement in the hall of our greatest heroes — as an icon of civil rights. And certainly he deserved that.
However the version of Dr. King who came to Memphis that fateful day was different from the one we’ve come to venerate. If you recall, he came in support of the sanitation workers, trash haulers – people we might see as the ones Jesus called, “the least of these.”
By then, King was getting more death threats than dinner invitations. He had begun to drink and smoke too much and sleep too little. His repertoire had branched out into messages about the Vietnam War and redistribution of wealth – even less popular topics than the advancement of civil rights.
Dr. King’s final weeks had taken a tremendous toll on his life.
He talked constantly of taking a sabbatical, had endless premonitions of his own death and was at the lowest point of his life, the week before he was assassinated. Yet, apprehension and all, he stood and preached the words, “I’m not fearing any man!”
And he didn’t.
Why do our anointed ones seem so often to have such enormous personal and moral failings? And do those failings take away from their message? The list is legion, from Bill Clinton to Thomas Jefferson to George H.W. Bush to Dwight Eisenhower and practically anyone with the last name Kennedy.
How to we separate the men from their messages? And do we need to?
Why is it we seem to think the yeoman’s work of changing the world is only something that can be done by a saint? Do we make our leaders superheroes in an effort to somehow let ourselves off the hook for our own shortcomings?
Like the trash men of Memphis King came to support, he was no different in many ways; just a man with a message.
King’s dalliances were too numerous to count, but one affair, the lady hidden in his hotel room that fateful day, was something different.
Like the first President Bush, King thought of her as a second wife.
And J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI had King in the crosshairs and sent an audio tape of a sexual encounter to Coretta Scott King, his wife. At the time, she felt it was a FBI conspiracy to put an end to her husband’s message and career. And probably it was. Maybe she knew, maybe she didn’t, but this was light years before the Hillary “vast right wing conspiracy” excuse.
I won’t pretend to know Coretta’s heart or insight into her husband’s.
King told his wife of this mistress in 1968 as she was recovering from surgery. “He disclosed to her the one mistress who meant most to him since 1963,” writes award-winning cicil rights historian Taylor Branch.
Yet King spoke of his wife in venerated terms:
“My wife was always stronger than I was through the struggle. In the darkest moments, she always brought the light of hope. I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement.”
From my paradigm, I always prefer to see these people as perfect. But maybe it’s their brokenness that opens a door to a more perfect 20/20 vision. Maybe it’s classic codependency; they feel they can’t fix themselves so they aim their healing powers at those around them instead.
There’s an endless line of people waiting to destroy our prophets.
Jesus’ own followers were a rag tag group of misfits but still they carried the message forth, before and after the crowds yelled, “Crucify him!”
It seems the song never changes, we just add a new verse.
Our search for a flawless leader will leave us empty and disappointed. No one will be worthy, but we all likely agree that there’s no need to mythologize Dr. King as a man. In doing so we get side tracked from his message.
What I admire most is he didn’t stand and preach it from the mountain top…he came down and got dirty in the street.
Still I have to ask; if we use the words from King’s most memorable speech where he beseeches us to judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character, what do we do with Dr. King?