Does the legacy of a heroic struggle for justice cover over a multitude of sins? Or does the iconic hero’s fatal flaw render him and, perhaps even his legacy, leprous?

Is it ‘one strike and you’re out’ or might the twitteratti just possibly permit nuance and, dare I say it, complexity?

The Evidence

Today’s Sunday Times contained a terrible report on the FBI’s recently released files on Martin Luther King Jr. by Tony Allen-Mills. Even before the domino-effect exposures of the #MeToo phenomenon, it would have been a stretch to dismiss some of the findings as, say, the harmless indulgences of a man under intolerable stresses needing to let off steam.

His biographer David Garrow has gone through these files and has an article in the June edition of Standpoint magazine. His findings are shocking:

King was accompanied by a friend, Logan Kearse, the pastor of Baltimore’s Cornerstone Baptist church, who had arrived in Washington with what an FBI summary describes as “several women ‘parishioners’ of his church”. Kearse invited King to meet the women in his room, where they “discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural and unnatural sex acts”.

The FBI document adds: “When one of the women protested that she did not approve, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her” as King watched. At the same hotel the following evening, King and a dozen other individuals “participated in a sex orgy” including what one FBI official described as “acts of degeneracy and depravity . . . When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated in this respect. King told her that to perform such an act would ‘help your soul’.”

There were many other incidents, including evidence of a concealed illegitimate child. The details are lurid and grim.

Of course, the FBI was not surveilling him out of a just concern for these women, but as the result of spurious security concerns. The evidence they had amassed was currency. In the inspiring film Selma (with David Oyelowo as MLK), there are hints of this behaviour but establishment dirty tricks are the focus, as just one of the numerous hurdles he had to overcome. Those tricks seemed to know few bounds (eg their attempt to drive him MLK to suicide).

The Dilemma

King was iconic, with the equivalent status of secular sainthood that Mandela more recently attained. Who can doubt that Madiba’s deeper flaws will be unearthed in due course? What then? For King, we have MLK Day. And there are countless MLK streets, boulevards, avenues. There is Pride (In the name of Love). There are the statues, the prizes, the memorials. And deep, deep, darkness.

So what now? Topple and tear down? Whitewash (with all racial connotations intended)?

MLK Jr. at the FBI in 1964 to speak with then Director J. Edgar Hoover (Getty Images)

Is it possible to honour a flawed hero? Or do we demand moral perfection? It’s actually quite an ironic question? Because morality has never been more fluid and subject to revision. One decade’s (month’s?) foible is another’s gross violation. Which is one reason why morality has become a matter of partisanship rather than ethics. My guy slips up, but that is tantamount to a capital crime when the other guy does it (“lock her up, lock her up!”). Such hypocrisy.

But it also breeds such self-righteousness and censoriousness. It’s one of the things I find most terrifying about our present moment. Social media has degenerated into a Wild West patrolled by the (self-) righteously indignant and malevolent troll. Human society will always reliably offer us moral inferiors to scorn and sneer at.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way condoning these claims about MLK if these reports are true. That’s impossible. As I said, the evidence suggests a sickening and chronic abuse of women. It is right to have that exposed.

But does that negate the legacy? As Garrow has said, ‘in the #MeToo age of revulsion for sexual harassment and assault, evidence of King’s indifference to rape “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible”.’

Is there room for ‘Complex Heroes’?

Never meet their heroes, they say. Should that include peering backstage?

Perhaps we should all get off our high horses and simply acknowledge we are all flawed, we all have a darker shadow side. Criminality should not, of course, be condoned and nor should the moral abuses of bygone eras that might not have known better. But I can’t see how a heroic legacy should be entirely dismissed as a result. Or we’d be left with no heroes at all.

  • George Washington owned slaves. As did Jefferson, Jackson and 9 other US presidents.
  • Churchill was imperialist and racist.
  • Gandhi was apparently not quite the paragon of personal virtue in his treatment of women.
  • Richard Wagner was a musical genius and a brazen anti-semite. As was the industrial colossus, Henry Ford.
  • And then there is the prevalence of abuse of underage boys and girls: Elvis? Michael Jackson? Charlie Chaplin?
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Marian Robinson tour the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial before the dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

So it’s pretty complicated. And we all have stuff we conceal, let alone regrettable past tweets, remarks, or attitudes. So shouldn’t we all be conscious of the glass houses we inhabit before we start throwing (even virtual) stones? Isn’t it actually no small relief that judgment can and should finally be left to the one who is both morally upright and truly merciful? Remember what Jesus himself said to those amassing their little arsenal of projectiles:

Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Someone better remind the church of the characters if some of her flawed heroes as well. A pretty gnarly cast.

    1. which is kinda the precise point I was trying to make!!

  2. Josh Chen suggests that Western culture is shifting from a guilt-innocence culture to a shame-honour culture. He says, “The difference between shame and guilt is subtle yet profound. If you make a mistake in a guilt culture, it’s just that: a mistake. If you make a mistake in a shame culture, you are the mistake.” https://www.barna.com/josh-chen-millennials-gen-z/#.XO2XkUuF6sA.twitter
    Maybe this helps to explain why flawed behaviour now seems more offensive that previously, and harder to forgive.

    1. Thanks for explaining that so clearly, Rosemary. I’ve heard those terms mentioned before but you’ve done it in a way that’s connected with me. Thinking about our modern songs and hymns it seems to me that ‘atonement’ hymns have a bit less purchase than they used to 20 years ago – not entirely, certainly, but they are different.

    2. it’s true – although I prefer to use guilt-oriented and shame-oriented, since, without that additional word, the subtle implication is that there isn’t a spectrum here. But it is not a matter of either/or. I’ve written a bit about this in my Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, and elsewhere in articles. The best book that I’ve read on this is The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson.

  3. I’m not sure I understand the differences in terminology. But I’d like to know why giving huge offense and being hugely offended seems more common nowadays, and forgiveness for being offended seems harder. (And yes, there seems to be less acceptance of flawed heroes: people are either “good” or “bad.”)
    Is it simply that the word limits of twitter, soundbites, etc. discourage nuance and promote outrage? Plus the #MeToo movement? Or are there other shifts in culture?

    1. in short i would say read my book A Wilderness of Mirrors! We are witnessing a convergence of several different trajectories on modern society so it is complex. The lack of nuance is certainly compounded by social media etc – but it is not the cause necessarily.
      But aas for the differences in terminology, it is simply a matter of avoiding crude generalisations about shame and guilt. Too easily it gets assumed that if you are from a shame culture, guilt is not an issue and vice-versa. Adding the word ‘oriented’ simply helps to avoid that reductionism.

      1. Thanks. I’ve actually read A Wilderness of Mirrors. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve recommended it widely. Clearly, remembering it is more difficult. Must read it again!

        1. gosh – that’s very kind – I totally understand!

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