Rethinking hero status: Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a monster?

César Chávez once declared, "History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless."

This quote got me thinking.  How will history judge Martin Luther King, Jr.?

"The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King," a recent essay published by widely respected historian David Garrow in Standpoint, a widely respected British magazine, sparked fierce debate among historians.  Within the press, however, Garrow's essay was met with a reaction somewhere between ambivalence and outright refutation.

Remember, this is David Garrow, author of King's Pulitzer Prize–winning biography.  This is an author of real merit.

According to Garrow, King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and "looked on and laughed" as a rape took place before his very eyes.

Again, this report comes from a senior adviser to Eyes on the Prize, an award-winning series documenting the Civil Rights movement.  Garrow is very much a liberal's liberal.  He's certainly no friend of the right, and he's certainly no enemy of King.  In fact, Garrow is, in many ways, a former idolator.           

The allegations against Dr. King are as shocking as they are unfathomable.  How could this man, an activist and orator like no other, act in such a monstrous manner?  In King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the self-professed pacifist eloquently expressed the hope that someday his children would be able to live in a nation "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  Well, Dr. King, your wish has been granted, because here we are, all these years later, judging the content of your character.

Outlets like the Guardian were quick to dismiss Garrow's claims.  Why?  Because acknowledging the historian's claims would destroy the legacy of a legend.

The allegations against King prompted me to read Michael Eric Dyson's portrayal of Dr. King, titled I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr (2000).  Dyson, who once referred to King as "arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil," documents the activist's sexual exploits.  King was a serial womanizer, sleeping with dozens of women behind his wife's back.

Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, also writes about King's penchant for plagiarism.  For decades, King's critics claimed that much of the civil rights leader's academic writings were plagiarized.  Dyson tells us, in no uncertain terms, that King regularly engaged in acts of intellectual piracy.

Even if Dr. King didn't laugh in the face of a woman being sexually assaulted, he was still, according to Dyson, an adulterous plagiarist.  Is it possible to be a cheat in more ways than one and still be a genuine hero?

In January of this year, leaders in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the nation's largest cities without a public memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., voted to rename a 10-mile stretch of roadway after the civil rights leader.  I wonder how they feel about this decision now.

What about all the other community centers, schools, and streets?  Should they be renamed?  What will next year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations look like?  Will they even occur?  Of course they will.

In the words of Don Miguel Ruiz, "we only see what we want to see; we only hear what we want to hear.  Our belief system is just like a mirror that only shows us what we believe."  And nobody really wants to believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was a shameful human being.

César Chávez once declared, "History will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless."

This quote got me thinking.  How will history judge Martin Luther King, Jr.?

"The Troubling Legacy of Martin Luther King," a recent essay published by widely respected historian David Garrow in Standpoint, a widely respected British magazine, sparked fierce debate among historians.  Within the press, however, Garrow's essay was met with a reaction somewhere between ambivalence and outright refutation.

Remember, this is David Garrow, author of King's Pulitzer Prize–winning biography.  This is an author of real merit.

According to Garrow, King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and "looked on and laughed" as a rape took place before his very eyes.

Again, this report comes from a senior adviser to Eyes on the Prize, an award-winning series documenting the Civil Rights movement.  Garrow is very much a liberal's liberal.  He's certainly no friend of the right, and he's certainly no enemy of King.  In fact, Garrow is, in many ways, a former idolator.           

The allegations against Dr. King are as shocking as they are unfathomable.  How could this man, an activist and orator like no other, act in such a monstrous manner?  In King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the self-professed pacifist eloquently expressed the hope that someday his children would be able to live in a nation "where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  Well, Dr. King, your wish has been granted, because here we are, all these years later, judging the content of your character.

Outlets like the Guardian were quick to dismiss Garrow's claims.  Why?  Because acknowledging the historian's claims would destroy the legacy of a legend.

The allegations against King prompted me to read Michael Eric Dyson's portrayal of Dr. King, titled I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr (2000).  Dyson, who once referred to King as "arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil," documents the activist's sexual exploits.  King was a serial womanizer, sleeping with dozens of women behind his wife's back.

Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, also writes about King's penchant for plagiarism.  For decades, King's critics claimed that much of the civil rights leader's academic writings were plagiarized.  Dyson tells us, in no uncertain terms, that King regularly engaged in acts of intellectual piracy.

Even if Dr. King didn't laugh in the face of a woman being sexually assaulted, he was still, according to Dyson, an adulterous plagiarist.  Is it possible to be a cheat in more ways than one and still be a genuine hero?

In January of this year, leaders in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the nation's largest cities without a public memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., voted to rename a 10-mile stretch of roadway after the civil rights leader.  I wonder how they feel about this decision now.

What about all the other community centers, schools, and streets?  Should they be renamed?  What will next year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations look like?  Will they even occur?  Of course they will.

In the words of Don Miguel Ruiz, "we only see what we want to see; we only hear what we want to hear.  Our belief system is just like a mirror that only shows us what we believe."  And nobody really wants to believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was a shameful human being.