The stuff of heroism, greatness

January 17, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

A FEW years back when a brouhaha ensued over the publicity surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s plagiarizing of his doctoral dissertation, I was sitting in an office with a co-worker named Rodney, who asked if the revelation had changed my opinion of King.

"Not one iota," I replied without hesitation. "Who cares that he plagiarized parts of a thesis that was probably boring and would only be read by a handful of college professors? Now, if they had said he had plagiarized 'Letter From a Birmingham Jail,' I would have been devastated."

King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," I continued, was worth any thousand doctoral dissertations, the lion's share of which would be the answer to an insomniac's prayer.

But the "Letter" is a document that ranks right up there with the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. King's life must be evaluated by what he did after he finished college, not by whether he borrowed for a dissertation.

But some still won't have it that way. In a column that led to the notorious theft of 14,000 copies of the University of Pennsylvania newspaper last April, Gregory Pavlik, an engineering student at the school, said King was unworthy of a holiday because of his "lechery" and the plagiarized thesis.

King's "socialist economics" -- his belief in a redistribution of wealth and his conviction that poor people should not work for mere subsistence wages all their lives -- also did not meet with Mr. Pavlik's approval.

Mr. Pavlik may have spent too much time in his engineering classes and not enough time studying history. Famous people have holidays named for them because of their greatness.

Lenin was a great man, notwithstanding his Marxist economics and his ruthlessness. Great men and women are not necessarily the most virtuous. Black historian J.A. Rogers included some unsavory characters in his two-volume work, "World's Great Men and Women of Color." When asked why, he quoted Lord Acton, who said, "Great men are sometimes bad men."

King's greatness cannot be denied. The country is forever in his debt for his insistence on grasping America by the ear and gently nudging it, in race relations, from the dark ages into the 20th century. But the ultimate measure of the man should be what he was doing just before he died. Not what he did in college, or that he may have had more than his fair share of mistresses -- but what he was doing in Memphis that first week in April of 1968.

He was there to help city sanitation workers who were on strike because of poor wages and horrible working conditions. He was there to help poor people -- members of that "underclass" today's conservatives are so fond of sneering at -- make a better life for themselves. And what the Gregory Pavliks of the world don't realize is that he didn't have to be there.

The civil rights movement split into nationalist and integrationist factions in the summer of 1966. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality were in the "black power" faction, formed impromptu when Stokely Carmichael -- chairman of SNCC -- uttered the slogan at a rally near Greenwood, Miss., in June 1966.

King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and the Urban League represented the more moderate, integrationist wing. King's criticism at the hands of some of the more radical black power advocates was brutal and searing.

He could have said, "I don't need this headache. I've led a successful boycott to desegregate buses in Montgomery. I led a successful movement in Birmingham that effectively desegregated that city and led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I led the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act that year. My work is essentially done."

He could have, indeed, quit the movement and become a pastor at a comfortable, middle-class church or the president of one of the nation's predominantly black private colleges.

He could have retired to a life of affluence and comfort. Instead, he turned his efforts to helping the poor gain economic empowerment. He made that fateful trip to Memphis because, as he put it, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?"

Laying down his life for his fellow man. Helping the weak and poor against the powerful and privileged. Sounds to me like the stuff of heroism and greatness.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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