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Martin Luther King Jr. Cheated on His Wife and Got Drunk; Big Deal

A writer asks us to stop ignoring the fact that the civil rights leader was a human being.


For years now the white power organization Stormfront has parked an anti-Martin Luther King Jr. website at MartinLutherKing.org, the hope being, presumably, that people innocuously searching for information about the civil rights leader will be shocked upon discovering that King drank alcohol and had extramarital affairs. Today, hopefully, the purveyors of that website may think about taking it down.

That's because in today's Washington Post, on the 43rd anniversary of King's assassination, writer Hampton Sides makes the very important, oft-overlooked point that a man's flaws don't necessarily outweigh their contributions to the world. After noting that one of King's mistresses had spent the night with King the evening before he was killed, Sides writes, "King was a human being: flawed, vulnerable, uncertain about the future, subject to appetites and buffeted by the extraordinary stresses of his position. His civil rights cause was holy, but he was a sinner."


This in an important lesson that should probably applied to all of our national heroes: A person needn't be perfect to be great. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. John F. Kennedy had multiple affairs, and his brother, Ted, got off scot-free for wrecking his car and killing a woman. Yet all three accomplished major things in their lifetimes, things whose legacies positively impact us to this day.

Beyond that, it seems self-defeating to want our heroes to be perfect, because we aren't perfect ourselves. As Sides says, "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?"

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