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The Inspiring Imperfection of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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People tend to celebrate or castigate Martin Luther King, Jr., with moderation conspicuous only by its absence. Most devotees speak of him as though he was perfect, and many detractors speak against him as though he was pathetic.

When they dare speak to each other, they often "dualogue" and demean one another rather than engage in meaningful dialogue about the extraordinary contributions this ever-so-hu-man of faith made to the Black struggle for freedom, power, prosperity, and peace.

That is unfortunate because, as is usually the case with famous people, carefully integrating hagiographic and much less honorific images of King can actually help one form a realistic and even refreshing idea of what he was like and all about. As a Christian, in fact, his life is reminiscent of certain heroes of the faith whose collective claim to fame was that God performed mighty works in and through them despite themselves.

Like ancient Israel's King David, for example, who gained the reputation as a man after God's own heart, Martin Luther King was also subject and susceptible to the same passions, perplexities, personal problems, and poignant contradictions as the rest of fallen humanity.

Yet, like the prophet Elias, when King prayed and protested against the tsunamic flood of injustice unleashed by racist attitudes and actions, it was as though he summoned all of heavenkind as well as humankind in an effort to stymie the deluge of racial discrimination that was destroying the lives of people of African descent.

He was not a saint or just a sinner, but a real hu-man who dealt with deeply personal issues in addition to grave social issues. He was a Black activist who had to cope with his own shortcomings even while working indefatigably to stem the calamitous tide of systemic racism in this country.

Thus, he is a Black American hero not because he had a halo, but because he was strong and sagacious enough to look and lift himself beyond his own faults and respond, as we now know only he could, to our nation's dire need for revolutionary love, respect, equal opportunity, and perennial application of the philosophy of non-violence.

The distinguished journalist Marshall Frady noted that King exhibited "that mystic capability of leaders of genius, at certain critical moments, to suddenly transmute into someone, something, awesomely larger than their ordinary selves." He never would have done so if, like far too many potentially great people, he had been incapacitated by his imperfection rather than driven by his dream.

It is disingenuous to dismiss him as a charlatan and an insult to his noble ideals to condone his indiscretions. However, it is wise to learn from him to stay humble and keep growing regardless of our accomplishments.

His life also shows that we do not have to be perfect to be great. Rather than hoard our gifts until we fancy ourselves to have it all together, we can grow even as we go forth doing great things with our lives. Besides, greater maturity and strength of character are good things that come not to those who just wait, but to those who make such progress a courageous, lifetime pursuit.

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  • Kudos! It is so refreshing to read this kind of perspective.

    “Dualogue” is such a cool word, although the need for it is unfortunate. Did you invent it?