In my day, heroes like JFK, Mickey Mantle and George Reeves did not have feet of clay. They were photogenic, stainless-steel men who stared down commies, smacked grand-slams and soared through the air to the rescue. As a kid, I didn’t dream of them cheating on their wives, smoking cigarettes, cussing a hole in the ozone or drinking themselves into a coma. A tell-all media fixed that.
Now comes the annual recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, another mover-and-shaker from my era. We now know that Dr. King, like all our heroes, was a flawed individual. In the 1980s, archivists uncovered evidence of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis at Boston University. In his book, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Rev. Ralph Abernathy acknowledged that his friend had a “weakness for women.” Because King was under regular FBI surveillance, accusations arose that he nurtured Marxist sympathies. Those suspicions, once printed in newspapers and slapped across Southern billboards, have morphed into websites dedicated to unveiling King as a “pinko.”
I’m not convinced that King was hungry to usher in a communist revolution. But I do know he lived in the same house of flesh that we all do. However, we could so focus on his sins that we minimize his towering achievements. His courage to nonviolently face down the monster of racism secured his place in history and the hearts of scores of people. How many Christians do you know who will put their lives on the line for such an ideal? On April 3, 1968, after an agonizing time of self-doubt, King spoke at the Church of God in Christ Headquarters in Memphis. Toward the end of his speech, he seemed to foreshadow his death when he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The next day, King was gunned down on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis.
Dr. King had guts. He had a burning vision. His faith impelled him to seek equal treatment of all people. He believed that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”–a biblical principle that he lived out during the darkest days of the civil rights movement. For that alone we can honor him.
As for his sins–they are certainly ones to avoid. But I won’t judge Dr. King for them; that’s not my job. I have enough on my hands to remove the plank in my eye without self-righteously pointing out the speck in another’s.