Over the last year or two, I have become increasingly fascinated by how we remember people. More specifically, I am fascinated by how we remember and romanticize the people we consider to be heroes. We have a way of remembering the good deeds and actions of these “good guys” while at times conveniently forgetting or being ignorant of mistakes, missteps, or character flaws of these people. These flaws or mistakes may be brought up by people who wish to tarnish the name of a person or may be brought up with a desire to more fully understand a person’s life; however, we have a way of quickly silencing critics or removing these things from our memory as time progresses with the assumption that we are doing service to the memory of the person by remembering the “best” of them.
For many years now, if someone had asked me for a list of my top five role models, I would have included Martin Luther King, Jr., as a member of the list. Here was a man who I knew fought for people, fought for equal rights, had been assassinated because of his message, and had had such a powerful impact on the consciousness of the nation that his memory had inspired the creation of a national holiday in his remembrance. This was a hero, a person to be remembered without flaws or blemishes, a person worthy of modeling my life and work after.
As my life continued, I began to hear murmurs that my picture of Dr. King was not as complete as I had thought. I had no space in my understanding of him to consider that he’d made any mistakes, especially not to the level of the rumors I was hearing, which led to my conclusion that what I was hearing could not be true. The books I read praised his work, and we had such a positive memory of him through what we learned in school, so how could any of this be true?
While I came to the understanding that the whispers I was hearing were true, at least in part, the first piece of media I encountered that presented this information “in broad daylight” was the movie Selma. The movie, which is concerned with the voting rights movement and protests in Selma, Alabama in 1965, also gives service to the private life of Dr. King during the time period of the protests. We watch as Coretta Scott King receives a package from the FBI containing tape recordings of some of Dr. King’s marital affairs. We are presented with the reality: Dr. King, the face of the movement, is a flawed man.
While this specific instance of indiscretion may be surprising, the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. had flaws should not be surprising to us. While a heroic historical figure may not have room for flaws, Dr. King was first and foremost a human, and all humans make mistakes and have flaws.
I do not feel that I need to defend Dr. King or his memory for the actions he took while he was alive. At the same time, I do not believe we should choose to define this man by his flaws. While I have adjusted my understanding and views of Dr. King accordingly, I would still consider him a member of my top five role models if I needed to create such a list.
In his book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, author Taylor Branch provides an incredibly detailed account of the history of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1954-1963 time period (to the tune of 922 pages of content). Dr. King features prominently in the story because of his position within the movement. This was a position he hadn’t requested or necessarily even wanted, but found himself thrust into at the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the end of 1954. The year-long struggle resulted in a victory for the movement, but for nearly a decade later Dr. King and the workers of the movement experienced setback after setback, losing almost every battle they fought. These failures and the perseverance of both Dr. King and everyone who fought with the Civil Rights Movement arguably make their eventual victories even greater, a testament to their years of work. In a similar way, I think that the personal failures of Dr. King can assist our understanding of his victories and his positive qualities. Even though he was human and made mistakes, he continued to fight for justice and rights for all people, actions which I choose to shape my life and work.
These flaws are not unique to Dr. King, and we will find them in all of our heroes when we choose to see them. Just because our models are also human does not mean that we must reject their example, nor does it mean we must embrace all of their actions. What we can do is learn from their example, remember the good and the bad, and recognize that we are all human.