What To Do With A Fallen King?

Adults only beyond this point.

I’m a long time fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” So it is with the recent revelations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today I spent the better part of my lunch hour reading the 7800 word article which, as the author (David Garrow) notes, American news outlets refused to print. The revelations in this article are hard to square with the icon I admire so much. As a recovering high school US History teacher, I can tell you I loved teaching the Civil Rights Movement. Former students might recall I was never able to get through the film footage of James Chaney’s funeral without choking back tears. Numerous times, while living in Washington DC, I’d go to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech on my iPod and try to imagine what it must have been like to be there.

While you are welcome to draw your own conclusions, I believe the evidence as well as the author’s research and conclusions are beyond reproach. This is no hit piece. It is, like all stories, the story of a broken and fallible person. At least one article called Dr. King the Harvey Weinstein of the Civil Rights Movement. That is rough, but not inaccurate. So how do I reconcile what I now know about Dr. King? In light of this information, do we cancel the federal holiday (or at least change it to ‘Civil Rights Day’)? Do we, as seems to be popular these days, tear down the statue in Washington DC and rename the myriad of schools and boulevards in America? I don’t think this is the answer. However, I don’t think sweeping this under the rug is the answer, either. It is inexcusable for the American free press to take a pass on a story so packed with personal and political significance.

My response will be consistent with what I’ve always tried to do with people who do great things. First, I’ll remind myself that MLK now joins a long line of amazing humans who accomplished great things in the midst of being fully broken: King David established the walled city of Jerusalem, but also sent Bathsheba’s husband to be killed in battle so David could have her for himself. Winston Churchill helped save western civilization. He was also a drunk and held views of his day considered racist. Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence while he also owned other human beings. These glaring flaws don’t cheapen their accomplishments, but make me truly appreciate how complex, broken and beautiful people can be. Next, I’ll take a cue from CS Lewis who wrote that the chief response to others’ sin is to thank God that specific sin doesn’t afflict me. My sin is all I can handle. While it may make feel better to point at others, signal my virtue, and say “At least I’m not that bad”. The truth is, I have been that bad. I am, on occasion, that bad. I am also, on occasion, very good.

It doesn’t take a towering intellect to reconcile the two Dr. Kings, but it does take a willingness to be honest with yourself. MLK said it plainly: ““And in every one of us, there’s a war going on. It’s a civil war. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care where you live, there is a civil war going on in your life. And every time you set out to be good, there’s something pulling on you, telling you to be evil. It’s going on in your life. Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate. Every time you set out to be kind and say nice things about people, something is pulling on you to be jealous and envious and to spread evil gossip about them. There’s a civil war going on. There is a schizophrenia, as the psychologists or the psychiatrists would call it, going on within all of us. And there are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us…There’s a tension at the heart of human nature. And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it.”

Maybe recognizing and accepting gross flaws in ourselves is the first step to accepting it in others. I don’t know if that’s possible in today’s zero defect and virtue signaling culture, but I’m hopeful. Maybe amidst the horror of these recent revelations, Dr. King can teach us yet another important lesson and help us become a better version of ourselves.

The full article by David Garrow can be found below:


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