Martin Luther King: why decrying “sanitizing” misses the point

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I listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (text: dream-speech) (video: http://www.dump.com/dreamspeech/ ) today for the first time in a long time – possibly even for the first time in its entirety though I know that fact isn’t to my credit. I’m currently in a Masters of Divinity program in a multi-faith, very liberal (theologically, but especially politically) divinity school.  This speech, or at least the image of Doctor King it represents, has been getting a lot of flack lately from a number of my classmates, who argue that we should know not the “watered-down” or “sanitized” version of Martin Luther King, Jr., brave advocate for racial equality, but rather the “real” MLK – who opposed war in Vietnam and critiqued income inequality and capitalism.

I agree that we shouldn’t know just the sanitized or idealized portraits of leaders, whether political, artistic, moral, religious, etc. I once had a teacher who told me that our generation needs heroes, and I think this is true; society is very cynical lately, and we like to tell ourselves that no one is that great after all, to excuse our own belief that we can’t be, either. However, I don’t think offering a non-sanitized picture of a true hero is likely to take away our appreciation of that person’s heroism. Taken a together with such a person’s accomplishments, a hero’s failings can be appreciated as humanizing, putting someone who otherwise at an unattainable level slightly more within our reach. For instance, I was recently reading a collection of essays by Emerson that included all of his revisions. It wasn’t demoralizing to know that such an eloquent, famous writer struggled for the right word, but quite the opposite; it taught me that despite his many accomplishments, he and I aren’t as different as I might have assumed.

But the “non-sanitized” picture of Dr. King advocated by my friends isn’t one that (in their view, at least) displays King’s shortcomings. Quite the contrary, those of my friends who emphasize his anti-capitalist stance support such a stance and identify with it. The fact that it was King’s too, puts a man widely acknowledged as a hero on their side in the modern debate over economics. (I, too, identify with the liberal stance on Vietnam, but as I’ll discuss below, that isn’t the point; the fact that I agree with King on an issue doesn’t mean that issue represents his most notable achievement or that which he should be best remembered for.)

I agree that we shouldn’t “whitewash” our recounting of King’s life and views in a way that leaves out those of his opinions that are controversial. But I think people who advocate that we focus especially on his views that agree with a broader modern progressive platform miss a key point. Keeping in mind all that King was and did, we celebrate him today because of the persuasive power and moral vision that he brought to the issue of legalized, institutionalized racism in America.

King was a leader in this area because he fundamentally changed people’s minds. Thanks (largely) to him, and to events like his “I Have a Dream” speech, institutionalized racism moved from being a widely held and respected position to one that is widely considered societally unacceptable and taught to children as wrong and backwards. Of course there is still racism in this country, and the psychological and societal repercussions of slavery are far from over. But we celebrate King because he united us in seeing the Civil Rights struggle of the 20th century as the legacy of the founder’s fight for freedom and just government, because he brought a country divided together to a fundamental moral understanding that was far from evident for most of human history. This, I think, is what a true leader does: unite us in a way that brings us to shared moral truth and creates a consensus around a more just society. It’s not inappropriate, but quite the opposite, that we celebrate that on Martin Luther King Day.

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One thought on “Martin Luther King: why decrying “sanitizing” misses the point

  1. [note from the author]
    I have written an important follow-up on this post regarding the importance of emphasizing the extent of violent – sometimes murderous – persecution of American blacks that Dr. King’s actions helped stop, and on why the legacy of moral leaders such as MLK belongs to all humans. See my post “Follow-up on Martin Luther King: the terror of racism and King’s moral – human – legacy”

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