Today we celebrate the life and death of a great man, a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that all men could be equal. Orator, visionary, martyr...the legend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is celebrated across the country. The only American to have his own federal holiday, I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in hushed, reverent tones from teachers who spoke of him as a sort of prophet of the civil rights movement.
The image of the impassioned King giving a fiery speech for liberty is a powerful symbol that has been used for good. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many myths, the man behind the symbol is far less impressive.
King dreamt of a world where men could be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character". What was the content of his character?
Martin Luther King, (legally named Michael, though Martin Luther has a better ring to it for a Protestant preacher), was a dishonest man. The true measure of a person's character is not what they say, or even how they act, it is how they act when they think nobody is watching. Oprah Winfrey said something similar: "Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not." It is one thing to preach virtue from the pulpit, another to practice it in your own life.
In the 1980's, the Martin Luther King Papers Project uncovered evidence that King's dissertation for his Ph.D in Theology from Boston University, "A Comparison of the Perception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" was plagiarized. The university of Boston made an official inquiry and admitted the same:
"We had many of the same professors, we worked in the same atmosphere during our graduate studies," said John Cartwright, an MLK scholar and member of the committee that investigated his plagiarism allegations, "under no circumstances would the atmosphere under which he did his work condone what Doctor King did. It's incredible. He was not unaware of the correct procedure. This wasn't just done out of ignorance."
Because this was discovered after his death, and because there would probably be riots in the streets if they did, Boston chose not to revoke his doctorate.
Still, according to Robert Evans, perhaps the most notable example of plagiarism is his famouse "I Have a Dream" speech. The general tone, and several direct lines, were lifted right out of the speech of another activist, Archibald Carey.
Theodore Pappas presents a detailed accusation in his book, Plagiarism and the Culture War. Most of the issue centers around the closing lines.
Here's how King's speech ended;
"This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 'My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.' And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring."
Compare it to Carey's speech:
"We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans: My country 'tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims' pride From every mountainside Let freedom ring!
That's exactly what we mean--from every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia--let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States, but for the disinherited of all the earth--may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, LET FREEDOM RING!"
Academic dishonesty is normally anathema to a doctor. How much worse, than, is marital infidelity in a preacher? King was under investigation by the FBI for ties with Communist organizations throughout the country. Who wasn't, right? It was the 60's. The files regarding his ties to communism and any treacherous activity he may or may not have engaged in are sealed until 2027. However, these investigations led to another discovery: King, married father of four, would frequently indulge in extra-marital affairs. Audio and visual recordings proved that King had a lot of love to go around, and civil rights groupies can be just as enthusiastic as rock and roll groupies when it comes to showing how much they appreciate your work. Whether you consider this a sin or a character flaw, King himself taught against such actions.
Ralph David Abernathy, King's close friend, addressed these recordings in his biography "And The Walls Came Tumbling Down":
Much has been written in recent years about my friend's weakness for women. Had others not dealt with the matter in such detail, I might have avoided any commentary. Unfortunately, some of these commentators have told only the bare facts without suggesting the reasons why Martin might have indulged in such behavior. They have also left a false impression about the range of his activities.(emphasis added)
Martin and I were away more often than we were at home; and while this was no excuse for extramarital relations, it was a reason. Some men are better able to bear such deprivations than others, though all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments. We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.
Though I personally believe that disloyalty in a committed relationship is wrong and a sign of a flawed character, I am not asking you to make that leap with me. Perhaps some of you view it as a harmless indulgence. However, King's character, his integrity, can only be judged from the perspective of his own self-proclaimed moral code. Remember, integrity is measured by your faithfulness to what you believe to be right and wrong. By that standard, he falls woefully short.
The great irony here is that these facts about the hero of the civil rights movement are never taught, or even widely known. Any sort of attempt to besmirch the legend surrounding the good 'doctor' is met with horrified allegations of racism and displays of emotion. People do not like finding out their heroes are human, or that man behind the curtain is no wonderful wizard of Oz. Perhaps this will take more time, after all, it is only recently that scholarship has begun to delve into the more sordid details about the lives of other mythical figures, the founding fathers, (Thomas Jefferson's affair with his slaves is more of a historical cliche than taboo now).
It is possible to honor the concepts the man championed without honoring the man himself. I for one refuse to judge Martin Luther King, Jr just by "the color of his skin" (black leader of the civil rights), and instead will view him based on "the content of his character" (adulterous, cheating fraud).
I await the angry, emotional comments. Have a pleasant holiday and enjoy your day off.
If you'd like to read more, most of the research into this came from resources found at www.snopes.com.