The Perfect Imperfection of MLK

A few months back, at a dinner party, the topic of cultural icons came up. Everyone at the table started to throw out their idols and luminaries. Unsurprisingly, Dr. King came up. A friend said Dr. King inspired him to teach in the inner city even though his parents tried to persuade him to get a big paying job in business. Out of nowhere, someone (not a friend of mine) blurted out, “MLK was unfaithful to his wife so we shouldn’t celebrate him.” 

As you can imagine, a debate ensued. He didn’t budge and we ended up agreeing to disagree. That wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone communicate that idea. A handful of folks I’ve come across have used MLK’s infidelities to discredit his life’s work. 

Why focus on the missteps of an amazing human being instead of focusing on the incredible and unimaginable sacrifice he made. Why did this guy think this was the right time to take a shot at MLK? Especially after my friend had shared that MLK had been the catalyst that brought him to the service of kids in the inner city of Chicago? 

There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Why do people think you have to be without blemish to be celebrated? Why do we want perfect heroes instead of humans who live heroically? Is moral perfection the only pathway to celebrating someone’s contribution to the world? 

MLK was human. He was flawed. He had regrets and failures. In other words, he was like you and me. And each of us have the ability to be like him. Should we dismiss him because he wasn’t perfect? Or, should we find solace in the fact that this towering figure was more like us than we thought? Whether or not he was unfaithful isn’t the point. He had kinks in his armor. Everyone does. 

No matter how important figures like MLK, Gandhi, JFK, Steve Jobs, Princess Diana, might have been to the course of history, they are not less heroic because of their humanity. Their flaws don’t discredit their work. MLK’s shortcomings aren’t cause for people to push him to the footnotes of history. His shortcomings let us know that we can change the world in the midst of our own flaws. Our weakest moments don’t define our legacy. Isn’t that good news? 

We don’t have to get caught up on how many times we’ve messed up. We don’t have to worry about what disqualifies us from making a difference. We don’t have to allow our past to define the future we can create. Today we remember a man who was more than a great orator, he was more than, “I Have a Dream.” MLK was human. A man who despite his flaws, regrets, and shortcomings refused to make excuses. That’s someone worth celebrating.