King's frailties don't detract from the strength of his sacrifice

November 18, 1990|By Hugh Pearson | Hugh Pearson,Pacific News Service

Days after the state of Arizona voted against replacing Columbus Day with Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a Stanford University scholar announced that Dr. King may have plagiarized major portions of his doctoral dissertation. The news prompted Dr. King's biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow, to consider a major reassessment of King the man. As for me, the more I learn about Dr. King's frailties, the more I admire him.

I began hearing about Dr. King's foibles in 1968, listening to my parents talk in the family car on the drive through Atlanta, going home from my grandmother's funeral. It was only two months after Dr. King's assassination. Someone my mother trusted told her that during an amorous rendezvous with a woman in a hotel room, Dr. King opened the window and playfully threatened to jump to his death unless she swore her love to him. It was one of the juicy anecdotes of the black bourgeoisie rumor mill, designed to show that, after all was said and done, Dr. King was "one of the fellas."

Those prominent Baptist "fellas" (read ministers), members of the black middle-class vanguard made up of preachers, teachers (my aunts' and uncles' occupation), doctors (my father's occupation) and undertakers, have long worn the image of philanderer as a kind of discreet badge of honor.

No one batted an eyelash about Dr. King's being like the rest until the rumors were validated by Dr. King's right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, in his own biography. The predominantly white media had a field day because by then Dr. King had been elevated to virtual sainthood, his holiday in place, ready to be further immortalized. Though we African-Americans never saw him as a saint, once he was turned into one we tried to find ways to keep him one.

But Dr. King was human. And it's embarrassing to watch him fall victim in areas of our greatest sensitivity. When society stereotypes blacks as oversexed, even the reputation of our saint is no longer there to refute it. Now when society whispers we're lazy, people can point to our saint for proof. That hurts. But it doesn't have to.

The most irritating aspect of being a member of a "disadvantaged" group is the way the label cuts off your humanity. "Role model" becomes your middle name. Want to gamble? You can't. Think about the responsibility you have to ghetto children. Want to try weed? That's out too. Ever thought about coveting a woman other than your wife? We say it's wrong for anyone. But when two "happily married" Kennedy brothers were rumored to have shared Marilyn Monroe and held White House orgies, it merely added to their bravado.

Dr. King, the role model for disadvantaged minorities, was supposed to be different. He was supposed to be pure to make up for all those "deficiencies" blacks inherently have. Blacks, Latinos and all other "disadvantaged minorities" have no time to be human. They have too much "climbing" to do.

At the age of 26, Ph.D. virtually completed, oratorical reputation well in the making, Martin Luther King was poised to choose a life promising comfort and security. Instead, he returned to the Jim Crow South and made an appointment with death.

Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters," relates Martin Luther King Sr.'s distress over his son's decision. Sobbing like a child, Daddy King begged his son not to return to Montgomery, Ala., to continue leading the 1955 bus boycott. The scene was a harbinger of the powerful image the world would see 13 years later at Martin Luther King Jr.'s graveside -- King Sr. crying uncontrollably as he gripped his son's casket just before it was lowered into the ground.

On that day during King Jr.'s visit home to Atlanta in 1955, his father enlisted the aid of one of the most esteemed educators in America, Benjamin E. Mays, then president of Morehouse College, to persuade his son to remain in the city.

But King Jr. wouldn't relent. He insisted on keeping on his death march by returning to Montgomery, even though he was offered an eminent professorship at Morehouse, his alma mater, and the virtual certainty of succeeding Dr. Mays as president of the college once Dr. Mays retired. After the Montgomery victory, the offers continued to pour in from prestigious universities and congregations throughout the country.

How many other men would have declined those offers and made the sacrifice Dr. King made? The Rev. C. T. Vivian, one of Dr. King's top lieutenants, broke down during a TV talk show in New York a few years later when he reflected on Dr. King's decision.

"He could have had whatever he wanted. He didn't have to die for those of us going around calling ourselves niggers, believing what the white man said about us!"

For me, that's all that needs saying.

Hugh Pearson has written for Newsday, the Village Voice, San Francisco Weekly and other publications.

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