Martin Luther King Wasn't a Saint

But is the anniversary of his death the right time to dredge up his worst qualities?

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To commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Hampton Sides reminds us in a guest op-ed for the Washington Post that he was "not a saint."

He preached "radical redistribution of wealth." His popularity "sagged." And -- gasp! -- he'd gained weight and was sleeping poorly.

Sides reminds us, too, that King had a mistress who was staying in Lorraine the night before he was killed.

He cautions against forgetting these less glorious qualities of the celebrated leader, and worries that his representations in Hollywood might neglect the side of King that was "a sinner":

Hopefully these and other portrayals will not seek to sanitize Martin Luther King. We have no use for Hallmark heroes -- airbrushed, Photoshopped, simon-pure. We need to see King in all his pathos, imperfection and messy ambiguity. In the end, that's the only way we can relate to his struggles or appreciate his greatness. Through his moments of very human doubt and disappointment, King remained true to the message of nonviolence at a time when the world seemed on the brink of self-annihilation. The night before he was killed, while tornado warnings wailed outside, he spoke of the threats that were out there from "our sick white brothers." Yet he found a way to preach through his apprehensions, crying out triumphantly: "I'm not fearing any man!"

As we mark the anniversary of his death -- in Memphis a full-day commemoration will feature former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young -- we need to stay mindful of King's flesh-and-blood humanity. By draping him in a halo glow, we do him little honor. By fashioning him into a fleshless icon, we place his achievements at a sterile remove. By calling our heroes superhuman we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that's something only saints do? What made King's eloquence so ferocious and his courage so stirring was that, like the Memphis garbage workers he came to represent, he was a man.

The message that we shouldn't mythologize King is a good one. In doing so, we risk missing the more powerful details of his commitment to civil rights (getting down in the streets to fight for change versus musing about the mountaintop, for example). But there's time for that all year long. And we could do without being reminded of his wandering eye and the rest of his worst qualities on the anniversary of his death.

Read more at the Washington Post.

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