I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will be judged in the long course of history to have been the greatest American of the twentieth century. Of course, there were other Americans during the last century who did remarkable things! But in the fifty-one years since Dr. King’s death his stature has risen, and it continues to rise. What he did during his thirty-nine years of life continues to shine ever brighter! And as the years and the centuries roll on from here, the various statesmen, generals, scientists, and inventors who were prominent in the twentieth century will be replaced by later figures who make new conquests and discoveries that better suit their own epochs.
Since Abraham Lincoln, there has not been anyone else with the stature of Dr. King. Just as Lincoln called us back to our founding principles and made the Founders freshly relevant in his day, so Dr. King did that for the twentieth century, and he did it with intellectual and spiritual might. Very few people in history have truly lived lives for the ages! And perhaps since Jesus walked the earth there has been no one who did more for others in fewer than forty years of life than did Dr. King. He is a genuine giant.
As would have been true of anyone who was working so hard in the nineteen-sixties to end the long tail of slavery and help this nation at last live up to its own ideals in the area of race, Dr. King had powerful enemies. The worst of these was J. Edgar Hoover, then the longtime head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a man who bore Dr. King such animus that he used his position to secretly record a lot of the civil rights leader’s life; then he tried to blackmail Dr. King into killing himself. All of this has long been known. But recently documents were released from the FBI’s archives that were dated only days before Dr. King’s death, and the allegations made in them seem so damaging that in our shamefully judgmental times they even are giving some King scholars pause.
But do we have the right to judge Dr. King? What might Jesus have to say about that? Perhaps you recall this famous passage from the Book of John:
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to (Jesus), ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’ They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either’” (JN 8:3-11).
And furthermore, it appears that what is in the FBI documents condemning Dr. King is mostly nonsense. A thoughtful article on historycollection.com analyzes both the documents and their place in a turbulent historical period. It then concludes with these paragraphs:
“Part of the reason the FBI was so set on getting rid of King was that they thought he was a communist at a time when communism was seen as the greatest threat to the country. And the documents allege that King was closely tied to communist organizations. But we know now that those ties were made up completely. King himself was no fan of communist regimes. And he made efforts to say so publically but found that his advisors feared alienating supporters who might be communists. ‘There are things I wanted to say renouncing communism in theory,’ King said, ‘but they would not go along with it.’ . . .
“If you take the FBI documents at face value, you’d assume King was a staunch supporter of communism, which he absolutely was not. And if that allegation in the documents is false, it changes the tone of the whole report. It makes it seem less like an objective effort to collect facts and more like an effort to discredit King with any rumor they could find. Ultimately, that’s probably all the report is, a collection of rumors meant to make King look bad.
“That’s not to say that King didn’t have personal issues with sexual affairs. Many of King’s friends and associates have stated over the years that they knew he sometimes had emotional and possibly sexual attachments to women. Like all men, King wasn’t perfect. And like anyone, he made mistakes and did things that might challenge the image of him that has been built up over the years. But the more disturbing allegations in the documents are almost definitely exaggerated or even outright lies. And King’s personal issues don’t take away from his legacy as a champion of equality.”
(All the italics are mine.)
There you have it. Dr. King had extramarital affairs, but apparently the rest of the FBI’s case against him was largely baseless. And as would be true if my own husband were to discover he had some wild oats to sow, Dr. King’s sex life was nobody’s business but his own and his wife’s. The nineteen-sixties were years when promiscuity was judged less harshly than it is judged today, and for prominent men it was almost de rigueur.
Dr. King is an intellectual and spiritual giant who transcends time. In days when this nation was perilously close to splitting apart over racial issues, Dr. King set a pitch-perfect tone that has carried on long after his death and still does its healing work today. As we have been doing with Jesus, let’s sit down together at the feet of this extraordinary man and learn from him.
Dr. King was quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said in July of 1965, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is a dream. It’s a great dream! The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”
“Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
“If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”
“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Our viciously judgmental time in history will pass, as have so many other benighted ages before it. The moral midgets trying now to destroy not only this nation’s Founding Fathers but also the modern Founding Father that Dr. King is proving to be will soon die un-lamented. Then as the future years and centuries pass, the miracle that is this nation, happily founded by a Generation of Giants and largely saved two centuries later by that one extraordinary man, will continue to thrive for the lovers of freedom and justice who are their fortunate beneficiaries.
May Americans in the long course of time prove ourselves to be worthy of their gift.