Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK, Jr. and Me

My relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is complicated.  Not that I ever met the man.  His too-short life ended, taken from him by an assassin's bullet in Memphis in 1968, while I was still a boy.  I grew up thereafter with the notion, solidly inculcated by the public schools and the elite media, that he was indeed a great American, a great man.  Although I am white and from the South, my parents were not political in any sense and it never occurred to me to challenge the prevailing view.

But, when in the early 1980s the controversy arose over establishing a national holiday recognizing King's birthday and celebrating his life, I was a young man and by then a confirmed conservative.  As most of the opposition to establishing the new holiday came from my side of the aisle, I was forced to reevaluate.

My initial conclusion was that he was not deserving.  First, we couldn't afford yet another paid day off.  I never did the math, but accepted the conclusions of those who did.  Second, as significant as King may have been, his importance to the country could never equal that of any of the Founders, most conspicuously Thomas Jefferson, and we had no day to honor him.  Finally, by then King's public biography was less sanitized than it had been previously and we now knew all too well about his, ahem, "woman" problem.

Nevertheless, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the bill establishing the third Monday of each January, close to his actual birthday of 15 January, as "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day".  We've enjoyed the day off ever since, even if we didn't celebrate it.

Later, I changed my mind about all this.  It seemed we could afford the day off after all.  Moreover, the ending of Jim Crow was an undeniably proud and watershed moment in our country's history and King was absolutely indispensable to that end.  Finally, at a personal level, I found the grace to forgive him his sexual indiscretions.  I recognized that he was a flawed man just like all the other national heroes we celebrate and, more importantly, I recognized that he was as a flawed man just like me.  Moreover, his moral lapses were chiefly private in nature and never resulted in instances of public corruption.

Still later I was to change my mind again, but not about the holiday or King's deserving of it.  As I learned more and thought about it more, it occurred to me that what complicated King's legacy the most, as well as the entire Civil Rights Movement for which he was its most public face, was that after the passage of the famous Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, he and the Movement somehow allowed itself to be morphed into the anti-Vietnam War effort, replete with all of its far too often blatantly anti-American rhetoric.

In his famous "Letter from  Birmingham Jail" , King wrote movingly of "bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."  Later, after taking up the anti-war mantle, he once said in a speech that the US was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."  Sadly, language such as this sullied for many Americans, including myself, the otherwise wholly noble cause we had come to associate chiefly with King himself and the struggle he lead to secure equal rights for all Americans.

Nevertheless, as I said, I still think he deserves his due and his day.  On balance, America would be a much poorer place without him and his sacrifice.  Because of that I can say, without hesitation, Happy Birthday Dr. King!


  1. Next year, please send this out late Dec. as an op-ed to some major papers, not just regional.

  2. You're too kind Sir. If the Sage can be humbled, he is.