On Martin Luther King Jr., social justice and personal and moral failings: A consideration

January 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 25, 2014

Author’s note: Earlier versions of this post appeared on Jan. 21 and 22. The current version has been revised and expanded. MEM

On Monday, America honored Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights pioneer, who would have been 85 were he still alive, was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

Civil rights scholar Michael Eric Dyson wrote the following about King in his 2000 book, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is, arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil. Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country’s destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation’s moral memory. He bid America to make good on its promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before. Part of King’s enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience. He also brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is the defining American of our national history. His social vision at its best captured the deepest desire for freedom that any American has ever expressed. King’s quest for true democracy is as great a pilgrimage as any American has undertaken. His hunger for real equality is as stirring a hope for national stability as any American has ever harbored. His thirst for racial redemption is as pure a faith in human morality as any American has dared to embrace. King’s surrender of his life to the principles he cherished is as profound an investment in the worth of American ideals as any American has ever made. King’s career, with all its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship we are likely to witness.

This is an extraordinary paean. But King was an extraordinary man, and I think Dyson has done a fine job of assessing his character and his place in our nation’s history.

Still, I also believe that it’s important not to sanctify any person, no matter how great his accomplishments. No man or woman is perfect, and King had serious, well-documented flaws that should not be overlooked.

King’s two most serious misdeeds were plagiarism and womanizing. He committed the first offense, advertently or otherwise, in pursuit of his doctorate in theology at Boston University. In 1991, the school attached a note to King’s dissertation indicating “that numerous passages lacked appropriate quotations and citations of sources.”

As someone who used to write for a living, and who may one day do so again, I take matters of plagiarism, copyright and fair use quite seriously. Gerry Harbison, a University of Nebraska chemistry professor, offers this scathing assessment of King’s intellectual misdeeds:

Plagiarism isn’t a mere peccadillo. It is a direct threat to our academic integrity. When a student plagiarizes, he undermines academic standards by receiving a grade for ideas or expression that are not his own, and he cheats other students who have earned their grades honestly.

When a scholar plagiarizes, he defrauds other scholars of due credit for their work, and he contaminates scholarship by making it difficult or impossible to trace the evolution of ideas.

Let’s turn to King’s infidelity, which I suspect may strike a chord with more Americans than his plagiarism. The invaluable website Snopes, which is dedicated to finding the truth behind rumors and urban legends, has a very informative page dedicated to King. A disparaging e-mail message circulated about the civil rights icon says the following:

One of King’s closest friends, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, wrote a book in 1989 in which he talked about King’s obsession with white prostitutes. King would often use church donations to have drunken sex parties, where he would hire two to three white prostitutes, occasionally beating them brutally. This has also been reported by the FBI agents who monitored King. King was married with four children.

Snopes debunks many of these claims as falsehoods. Abernathy’s memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, acknowledged King’s frequent adultery; it also noted that everyone in their civil rights organization “had our weak moments.”

Per the Mikkelsons, the couple that runs Snopes, the memoir contains nothing about King hiring or beating white prostitutes, or about him using church funds for wild sex parties. Instead, Abernathy stated:

A recent biography has suggested without quite saying so that Martin had affairs with white women as well as black. Such a suggestion is without foundation. I can say with the greatest confidence that he was never attracted to white women and had nothing to do with them, despite the opportunities that may have presented themselves.

Cecil Adams, the author of the syndicated newspaper column “The Straight Dope,” focused on a different part of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Paraphrasing Abernathy, Adams writes that:

[O]n the night before he died, King gave a rousing speech, had dinner with a woman afterward and remained with her till 1 a.m., then came back to his motel to spend the night with a second woman. In the early morning hours a third woman came looking for King and became angry when she found the bed in the room he shared with Abernathy unoccupied. When King reappeared, he argued with woman #3 and wound up knocking her across the bed.

This is thoroughly despicable behavior on King’s part, it goes without saying. And this brings me to a question I now consider every year around King’s birthday: How should we judge the civil rights icon in light of his misdeeds?

By considering the whole man, I believe — as hard as that is to do. Credit King for his magnificent words and actions; discredit him for his misdeeds. Let his life remind us that the greatest of us can act maliciously and dishonorably, even as the least of us are capable of acts of goodness.

In closing, I want to cite three writers’ views on King. The first writer is Boyce Watkins, an economist, political commentator and activist. Of the three people I’m about to cite, Watkins is the most sympathetic to King — but he also insists that it’s fitting to remember his transgressions.

Realizing that Dr. King is human and as flawed as the rest of us is probably a good thing, since it allows us to stop worshiping him as a God to remember that we can all be just as great. We shouldn’t spend all of our time remembering who Dr. King slept with, but only that he had a dream when he was sleeping. Fulfilling that dream should continue to be our focus.

Earlier I mentioned Harbison, who has argued that his university should not officially honor King. I find this position ludicrous, not least because my understanding is that institutions that accept federal money are legally bound to observe federal holidays, which King’s is.

Intellectual theft is very serious, but Harbison’s distaste for the crime blinds him to the King’s worthy accomplishments. Still, Harbison’s derisive examination of King’s plagiarism contains this perceptive nugget: 

King’s academic dishonesty is after all mostly irrelevant to his life’s work. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did us all a great good by ending the greatest social evil of mid-20th century America — legally sanctioned segregation and racial discrimination. That movement is not in the least diminished by the ethical shortcomings of one of its leaders.

Had Harbison accounted for King’s deeds as thoroughly as he touted up King’s misdeeds, his overall evaluation of the man’s legacy would be more creditable.

For the last word, let’s go back to Adams, who arguably has the best measure of the man whom we honor every January.

As every reasonable observer has commented, neither King’s sexual wanderings nor his scholarly misdeeds detract from his core achievement. By continually publicizing black grievances while putting a palatable, nonviolent face on resistance to jim crow, King paved the way for the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s and a major turnaround in public attitudes about race. But there’s no getting around the fact that he was a complex and deeply flawed man. Was he a great American? No argument here. Was he a fraud and a hypocrite? He was that, too.

Indeed. Let’s remember all of the aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, both so we might strive to build on his accomplishments and so we can try to avoid his mistakes.


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