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What Would MLK, Jr. Do?

By GRR Editorial Committee

This month, the country honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday to mark his birthday. Attention – much deserved - was given to his speeches, strategies and accomplishments. No one can question his dedication to the civil rights movement – arrested twenty-nine times, stabbed once, threatened and harassed countless times, and ultimately paying with his life. A gifted orator, King gave voice to millions. A dedicated clergyman, he gave leadership when others hesitated. But there’s one thing that’s often overlooked: Martin Luther King, Jr. had flaws.

For all his gifts and accomplishments, King’s legacy includes reminders that he wasn’t perfect. There’s a shadow of plagiarism, infidelities and chauvinism. For his remarkable public speaking talents, his grammar and spelling skills were notoriously lacking. For all of his bravery and leadership, organization was not his forte. For all of his strengths, his weaknesses demanded that he rely on a broad team of others who shone in ways he could not.

Why bring up flaws at a time when we commemorate all the good that King accomplished in his short thirty-nine years of life? We bring it up not to be disrespectful but to be holistic. When we hold heroes up to be admired, there’s a little voice inside most of us that says, “I’m really glad he did what he did, but no way would I be willing to die for an idea,” or, “He was the right person in the right place at the right time. He was destined for greatness, not me.” But when we elevate a man without also acknowledging his shortcomings, we create a false narrative. That narrative implies that in order to do great things, we must be great in all areas of life.

If the phrase, “If you can see her, you can be her” is meant to encourage young girls to nurture aspirations, then false narratives that turn heroes into superheroes do the opposite. The most relatable stories are those where we get to see that the people we admire are human. When we can see ourselves in them, we can see ourselves doing what they did. If they weren’t perfect, then maybe we, with our imperfections, can make a difference too.

King was gifted. He was also flawed. He was a leader. He also had much to learn. He accomplished extraordinary things. He didn’t do it alone. King was a great man, but he was only one man. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement are the results of tireless labor from hundreds of leaders, thousands of organizers, tens of thousands of protesters, and millions of supporters.

Each of us holds the capacity for both greatness and personal failings. Are King’s shortcomings forgivable? Are they understandable? Can they be explained by his circumstances, his era and culture, the pressure to be so much for so many? The compassionate answer is yes. The complete answer is that it’s complicated, and we need be okay with the messiness that comes along with heroes who are human. King’s flaws show his fuller humanity – and those flaws allow us to see ourselves in him.

For Black History Month, we’ll be publishing daily profiles of individuals who overcame personal obstacles, broke down barriers and left the world a better place. They won’t be our famous heroes. You won’t be reading about Douglass, Tubman or King. You’ll instead learn about the architect who learned to draw upside down so White clients wouldn’t have to share the same side of the table with a Black man. You’ll read the history of the freed slave who inherited her captor’s estate and used that wealth to create the first HBCU. You’ll meet the NFL player who invites you to have an uncomfortable conversation with a Black man. The greatness of these people was not preordained. They were afraid, angry, and tired. They were and are imperfect people who answered the challenge to do important things while being ordinary. On our social media, you’ll see the hashtag #OrdinaryPeopleCanDoExtraordinaryThings. It’s meant as a reminder. It’s also meant as a challenge. See yourself in their stories. Then ask yourself what you might do to end discrimination, not because you’re perfect but because you can.

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