Note: Freedom Fighting began a year ago with two goals: (1) to call attention to the need for moral leaders, and (2) to explore how to continue the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King today. Having addressed the populist movements, reform efforts, and moral issues of the day, it’s time to move on. This is the final issue.
What can we say about Martin Luther King that he has not already said for us? Not much. The best way for us to pay homage to this modern-day prophet is to act on our conscience, for if we are people of good will, we must do good. And more than his words, King’s actions show the way.
Before a final tribute to Martin King, however, let us review his foibles and failures to ensure we know whom we are honoring.
Plagiarism and marital infidelity
Infidelity was common among preachers in the civil rights movement; King claimed he knew perhaps just one “chaste” pastor (James Lawson). James Bevel, the creative force behind several campaigns, had been unfaithful to his wife Diane Nash, leader of the Nashville sit-in efforts and a hero of the movement in her own right. Guilt-ridden, Bevel insisted that pastors in the movement come clean to their wives. One of King’s biographers believes MLK agreed to the plan.
His wife Coretta, however, denied the allegations to the end, stating “Martin and I never had a discussion over this. … I don’t have any evidence of one instance of infidelity. Not one.” Whichever version is true, King comes out OK in the end: repentant on the one hand, not guilty on the other.
Regarding the accusation of plagiarism, the evidence seems somewhat clearer. In 1991, Boston University (King’s alma mater) commissioned a special committee to investigate his doctoral thesis, and concluded that “Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation.”
However, the committee’s recommendation was that “no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree.” If not scot free on this count, his offense was minor enough to avoid posthumous condemnation or punishment.
Dreamer, doer, prophet
Hypocrisy, said George Orwell, is the British national vice. Selfishness, King all but said, is that of the United States. Given the choice, King might prefer to be remembered less for speeches and more for actions, for a true prophet is known by his fruit. “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. … Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” (Matthew 7:15-20 NLT)
King demonstrated to the U.S. its own discrimination, materialism, and militarism, bringing them out in the open for all to see. In the process, he held up a mirror to every human heart, forcing each one to declare its loyalty. So let us remember King not for his own actions but as a prophetic guide for ours. “Life’s most pressing question,” he said, “is ‘what are you doing for others?’” We too shall be known by our fruits. May they be as fragrant as those of the great American prophet, Martin Luther King.