Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., and on heroism

 

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s been a holiday in all fifty states only since 2000, when Utah finally adopted it. MLK was a hero, and the holiday dedicated to him is a good time to reflect on his life and on the meaning—and especially the limits—of being a hero.

If we venerate some of our Presidents for their accomplishments, then we surely should venerate King. He arguably did more to make America a better nation than anyone since Lincoln. He dreamt that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

America is not that nation yet—not quite—but we’ve progressed awfully close to it since King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And the progress has been largely inspired by King. His insistence on non-violence sealed the commitment of African-Americans to it, and his description of what justice meant captured the conscience and then the heart of much of white America.

Yet when his birthday was first proposed as a national holiday in 1979—just eleven years after his death—it was so controversial that it failed to win a majority vote in the House of Representatives, and it took another twenty-one years for the fiftieth state to recognize it. Many reasons have been cited for the resistance, but surely a major reason is doubts about King’s character.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered King a communist and an adulterer and a threat to our democracy. He was an adulterer, a strong and bitter opponent of the war in Vietnam, and an advocate for a vision of economic justice that many thought was a rejection of American capitalism. John McCain for one was a bitter opponent of a holiday honoring King.

Those who opposed a King holiday said America honors heroes,  and King was no hero. But they were wrong. They had a flawed view of what heroism means. Jack Marshall explains, in his EthicsAlarms.com blog, why flawed people like Thomas Jefferson, Babe Ruth, and JFK

were still heroes; they just weren’t heroes all the time, in every aspect of their lives. The Greeks knew it and Shakespeare knew it: nobody’s perfect. That doesn’t mean that we can’t admire the best of someone’s accomplishments and conduct. We can. We should.

King is a hero for his leadership of the non-violent struggle that dramatically expanded civil rights in America, and we should revere him for that, with no need to diminish his accomplishments by dwelling excessively on his human flaws.

He described his dream in his Lincoln Memorial speech:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

On Martin Luther King , Jr Day we should reflect on King’s dream, and on the distance we still have to travel to make it reality.

 

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2 Responses to “Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., and on heroism”

  1. Marty Says:

    It’s true, I, Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer. This being the cornerstone of my character, I find it hard to put value in any of my speaches considering I am unable to forgive even myself for such a horrible, vile act of dishonor.

    • Ethics Bob Says:

      The value of King’s speeches is in the acts of the people who heard them. His physical courage in facing–literally–the crudest and most violent racism stands alone.

      Would you think an adulterer who races into a burning building to save a stranger’s child is a here? I would.

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