MLK: A Mixed Legacy?
One of my earliest memories of Martin Luther King Jr. is listening to the U2 song “Pride (In The Name of Love)” throughout many car rides to and from school, around town, on trips, etc. My mother was and is and avid U2 fan, so I became acquainted with the legendary Irish rock band’s entire catalog. “Pride” moved me before I really knew anything about the subject of its lyrics.
Later on, MLK’s life and sacrifices, along with the rest of the Civil Rights Movement, were large parts of social studies curriculum throughout all school grades. I idolized the man, his deeds and his eloquence, and his sacrifice. I felt saddened at his sacrifice yet encouraged that the country he envisioned was closer to fruition in my time than his.
You know how they say “never meet your heroes”? Although meeting MLK in person was impossible, I did the next best thing by investigating his life as much as I could. Along the way, I found out some unsavory details: the controversy over his doctoral thesis and his extensive philandering. In the past few years, historian and King scholar David J. Garrow contended that MLK may have watched as sexual assault and/or rape occurred in his presence. These claims are intensely debated within historical circles, however.
For me, MLK lost his luster. I turned to other icons for guidance for over a decade.
Recently, I’ve tried to view MLK as a flawed, inspirational man.
As he wrote in his autobiography,
“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 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 that there is a Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll within us….there is a tension at the heart of human nature. And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and build our temples, we must be honest enough to realize it.”
With his own Jekyll and Hyde within, he was a flawed man. This doesn’t mean that Mr. Garrow’s research should be discarded or washed over, or we should preserve his legacy to prevent future problems. We must consider the sum of the man and his achievements. As is true for all of us.
It is a fact that he battled the temptation to hate the society that suppressed African-Americans every day.
It is a fact that he was instrumental, along with many others, in the Civil Rights Movement.
It is a fact that he inspired millions in his own time and beyond thanks to his leadership and rhetorical skills.
It is a fact that he looked into the void, and saw hate staring back.
It is a fact that he rejected hate, and chose love.
It is a fact that he paid the ultimate price for civil rights.
For those reasons, MLK deserves his day. Because of his example, we can destroy the Hyde and embrace the Jekyll within us.