A Man Weak and Strong


November 16, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON. — AT THE BEGINNING, the subject was so touchy that the

scholars were asked not to even use the word. For over a year, those working with Martin Luther King Jr.'s, papers called it, cynically and sadly, ''the P-word.''

Now the revelation that King appropriated the words of others throughout his graduate career is common knowledge. Great passages of his Ph.D. thesis weren't his.

Again, a P-word: Last time it was promiscuity. Today it is plagiarism.

Once, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about a time when his children would live in a ''nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'' Today, he is being judged by the complex content of his own character.

The country is learning of the flaws that their owner felt so intensely. King was no stick figure, appropriate for holiday framing, no object for the school lessons we offer up to our holiday heroes. George Washington fathered the country. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Martin Luther King championed civil rights. Class dismissed for the long weekend. This person of great courage and vision had wide fissures in his moral makeup. The man who had a dream also had secrets, though not from himself.

By all accounts, King was mercilessly self-critical, often insecure, wounded by guilt and nagged by a sense of unworthiness. Once he preached, ''There is a schizophrenia . . . within all of us. There are times that all of us know somehow there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us.''

While he was his own harshest judge, King was also wisest perhaps in calculating the distance between a hero and a human. It is something the rest of us find difficult.

Promiscuity is not a felony, nor is plagiarism. It matters little to the world what King might have written on the Ph.D. subject of ''A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman.'' It was what he did for, and said to, the country that crystalized our ideals as much as any Gettysburg Address. But where do we put the revelation that the man who took the mantle of leadership in a moral cause, also cheated. On his wife. In his scholarship.

In the time-honored tradition, King has gone through the transformation from ordinary person to leader to martyr to saint. The cause was personified and the personification was Martin Luther King Jr.

The people who discovered his plagiary knew in their dismay that this would give aid, comfort and ammunition to enemies. Not just the enemies of King, but of civil rights.

Now, as David Garrow, a King biographer deeply surprised by the evidence of plagiarism, says: ''Using King as an inspirational symbol for children or teen-agers is much, much more difficult now. There's no getting around that.''

But maybe we have had too much of heroes manufactured and disassembled. As Clayborn Carson, the head of the King papers project, says: ''I don't think it's healthy in a democracy to believe that there are some people who were born great and not without human flaws and limitations. To me an heroic figure is someone who recognizes his or her own limitations and yet has the courage to respond to the demands of historical moments.''

Perhaps it's time not just for a revisionist view of King, but of hero-worship itself. We have lived, after all, most familiarly with the notion that leaders make change. The Great Man school of history is taught to our children.

America doesn't celebrate National Founding of the United States Day nor The War to End Slavery Day nor Civil Rights Day. We give faces and names to our crises. Today, many talk of a lack of leaders as if the genetic strain had run thin. But it is moments and movements that produce greatness in people.

In one sermon, King said prophetically: ''You don't need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. I want you to know this morning that I am a sinner like all of God's children, but I want to be a good man and I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, 'I take you in and I bless you because you tried.' ''

After all the P-words are placed in the alphabet of his character, this is the lesson for the children. Here was a man, an ordinary man, with human strengths and weaknesses. But when the time came and much was demanded of him, he found the greatness within himself. Martin Luther King Jr. ''tried'' -- and he changed the world we live in.

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