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News stories of recent months underscore the fact that the place of Martin Luther King, Jr. in our national mythology is still not secure. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Myth-making in a nation so large and various as ours takes time. In that light, the twenty-three years since Dr. King’s death is not a long time. It may not be bad that we are slow to elevate a historical figure to the status of national exemplar. When we so elevate a figure, we are saying something not only about that person but about ourselves. Among the many things that make us who we are, we are whom we admire and teach our children to emulate.

In 1983, Congress declared Martin Luther King Day to be a national holiday. Aside from the immediate effect of closing federal offices for a day, such an act of Congress is a recommendation, a statement of hope that people will agree that we recognize our better angels in the person and work of Dr. King. As with other national holidays, the observance of Dr. King Day is spotty. It has been a long time since national holidays were observed with any hint that they might be civil holy days. Just as well, some say, arguing that “civil religion” is a very dubious enterprise. Yes, but a society needs something like public piety—common symbols, stories, and rites that evoke respect, even reverence (although never worship).

Congress was right in what it did. It was not, as some claim, throwing a sop to black Americans; it was raising a sign for all Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. advanced a thesis about America. A thesis is, first of all, a proposition. Dr. King proposed that legalized racial discrimination contradicted fundamental propositions of the American experiment. Of course he was not the first to say that. But he said it with an almost singular power of persuasion. And, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, he acted on it in a manner that would, in time, catch the conscience of the citizenry.

With remarkable, although not unfailing, consistency, he channeled anger into the ways of peaceful protest within the context of democratic deliberation. He made clear that his dream was a dream of and for America, not against America. He called us to be the people we professed to be. Most Americans listened to his thesis, and knew he was right. Some of those who view history in the light of providential purpose did not hesitate to acclaim him as God’s instrument. Not since the Civil War had Americans been so compelled to face the most abiding sin of their corporate history. If one can speak of countries having souls. Dr. King led this country to something like repentance and amendment of life, or at least to nobler resolve.

Yet Dr. King and the day set aside to honor his memory remain, as they say, controversial. The reasons are not hard to find. We reject the claim that it is the only reason while readily acknowledging that one reason is racism. It is not only in the recognized fever swamps of extremism that one encounters Americans who never listened to Dr. King, or listened to him and strongly disagreed. They believe that blacks are inherently inferior and constitute a population basically alien to this society. In their view, laws of racial segregation were neither irrational nor unjust. Even if no other questions had subsequently been raised about Dr. King, these Americans would not honor his memory or celebrate his day. Racism may not be the main reason, but it is surely one reason, and it can in devious ways infect other reasons.

Many Americans are no doubt ambivalent about Dr. King because they are ambivalent about the current form of the civil rights movement that is associated with his name. Already in his lifetime, advocates of “black power” countered white racism with black racism, contending that blacks are indeed alien to an inherently oppressive “Amerika.” Today, with significant gradations of stridency, many black leaders who claim the mantle of Dr. King perpetuate that poisonous line of unreason.

The very term “civil rights” has come to be understood not as a cause opening America to a larger and more generous sense of community but as a militantly fraudulent form of special pleading. Thus, for example, in the last Congress the Civil Rights Restoration Act was roundly, and rightly, criticized as the Racial Preference Act. The thesis of Dr. King has been turned into its antithesis. Most Americans do not take well to quotas and reverse discriminations designed to give additional advantage to those blacks who are already doing well. They are disgusted with racialist leaders who adamantly press for such measures while ignoring, denying, or excusing the desperate plight of an isolated black underclass, especially in our urban centers.

The racism of the right, against which Dr. King contended, is familiar. Not so readily recognized are the more recent manifestations of the racism of the left. Much pro-abortion agitation about the “crisis” of teenage pregnancy thinly veils a desire to control and, if possible, reduce the black population—especially the lower part of the population that may turn out to be a “drain” on society. The leaders of the public school establishment are determined to perpetuate a destructive educational system to which they would not subject their own children but which is good enough for “them.” “Progressive” hiring and tenure policies in universities are based on the assumption that “they” cannot meet “our” standards, and therefore compromises must be made in the name of affirmative action.

These and other measures are advanced under the vague rubric of “civil rights.” The result is the opposite of Dr. King’s thesis that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The result is that many whites, and not a few blacks, are ambivalent about celebrating Dr. King because they, wrongly, identify him with a civil rights ideology that has made a mockery of the movement that he led.

Powerfully reinforcing these reservations are the questions raised about Dr. King’s own character. That he was a philanderer, indulging himself in frequent adulterous relationships, now seems to be established beyond reasonable doubt. This aspect of his character was apparently well known to some who worked closely with him, and has become quite public in recent years. Now another thesis of Dr. King is being widely discussed, his doctoral thesis written at the School of Theology at Boston University. It seems that large sections of the thesis, and much of King’s earlier and later writings, were “borrowed” from others without attribution. The unavoidable word for that is plagiarism.

The revelations about Dr. King’s doctoral thesis do not touch his claim to historical greatness. While a few writers have contended that Dr. King was a scholar and theologian of note, this was generally recognized as hagiographical excess. Strangely enough, however, some among his more distinguished biographers have said that they are shaken by the finding of plagiarism. They were not similarly shaken by his sexual behavior. After all, many great men have been philanderers, but plagiarism is something else. Plagiarism is much more serious than adultery, that is, if your primary universe of discourse is the academy. Plagiarism is a knowledge-class sin. To understand this is to understand why Dr. King’s plagiarism was so prominently featured in the prestige media in a way that his adulteries were not.

Some commentators took a different tack in response to the most recent findings. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, editorially opined that journalistic explorations into the private lives of public figures have gotten out of hand. The editors compared the attention paid the King disclosures with the exposes that undid Gary Hart, John Tower, and others in recent years. The comparison does not hold. At stake with Hart was his aspiration to be president, and the Tower question was whether he was qualified to be secretary of defense. At stake with Dr. King is whether he should be enshrined and celebrated as an exemplary figure in the telling of the American story. Moreover, the comparison does not hold because a doctoral thesis is not a private act. Perhaps most important, the comparison does not hold because Dr. King was a minister of the gospel.

The significance of the last point generally escapes those who have crafted the public telling of the King legend. A few days following his death in April 1968, a memorial service was held in New York at a large Harlem church. On network news, a reporter standing in front of the church concluded his report with this: “It was a religious service, and fittingly so, for, after all. Dr. King was the son of a minister.” The son of a minister? Dr. King never left any doubt that he understood himself and his movement in terms of Christian teaching and ministry. The public secularization of the King legend has everything to do with the secularistic propensities of our cultural elites. Yet another factor is at work, however.

Even some of those who recognize that Dr. King cannot be explained apart from his religious milieu and self-understanding seem to think that the usual standards for clerical behavior do not apply to the black church. Compare, for instance, the sensationalistic media treatment of white televangelists caught in sexual dalliance. Long and lasciviously, the media slaver over the manifest “hypocrisy” of a Jimmy Swaggart. Dr. King’s sexual derelictions, on the other hand, are discreetly ignored, or even welcomed as evidence that he was not one of those awkward types derisively referred to as “saints.” (The last was the relieved observation of The Nation in response to the King exposures.)

Why this nonchalance toward Dr. King’s moral transgressions? One answer is that Dr. King was on the right side of a great and just cause. Another and less attractive answer is the supposition that we shouldn’t expect as much of blacks. The people who are accepting of Dr. King’s moral failings are, as often as not, the same people who tell us that black rap groups that draw their language from the sewer are “representative of authentic black culture.” The “acceptance” professed by so many of a progressive bent is, in fact, a condescension riddled through and through with racialist stereotypes.

The truth is that for millions of Christians, black and white, there is the perception that Dr. King betrayed their trust. If he is to be accused of hypocrisy, however, it was the hypocrisy defined as the homage that vice pays to virtue. Unlike so many others in the sixties, he did not commend his failings as an “alternative lifestyle.” He knew that he was a sinner, and we can hope that he knew he was a forgiven sinner.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is rightly honored as a hero in the telling of the American story—not because of his personal virtue but because he was the chosen instrument to advance a morally imperative change in our common life. His character was grievously flawed. He was, to borrow from Saint Paul, an “earthen vessel”—a very earthen vessel. For believers this only underscores the truth that, as the Apostle says, “the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” We have little doubt that Dr. King would agree with that. And we have little doubt that he would further agree that the thesis he sought to advance needs still to be championed today—against those who opposed him then, as well as against those who fraudulently claim his legacy now. Dr. King, we expect, would not be at all surprised that he and his thesis continue to be cause for controversy.