MLK with Feet of Clay

Politicians Politics Race

            Pearl River      Fani Willis, the Fulton County prosecutor who has filed a conspiracy case against former President Trump and 14 co-conspirators, “…referred to herself as a “flawed” and “imperfect” public servant — pointing to how Martin Luther King Jr. was also an imperfect human being called to public service and changing the world.”  Her speech to a church congregation in Atlanta was prompted by unsubstantiated allegations made by one of the defendants impugning her relationship with a subordinate.  It’s not a precise analogy, as all of us should know on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  She is a government employee, and King was a preacher, and civil rights leader.  There is a big difference in the definitional requirements for a government employee and officeholder as opposed to a private citizen, but regardless that was what was said, and more important was what was unsaid and implied about King’s being an “imperfect human being.”

No matter the direction this is coming from, all of this makes me uncomfortable.  I’m not disagreeing that King was a “flawed” human, just like the rest of us, but that doesn’t stop me from being suspicious about the motivations around all of this, or how it is being weaponized, once again, by racists and opponents of civil rights.

None of this is exactly news, but there are some clear reasons why this is now in the public domain as more common knowledge as opposed to salacious gossip.  First, there was the 2022 biography of Hoover, G-Man:  J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, by Beverly Gage which detailed all of the legal and extralegal efforts by Hoover and then Attorney General Robert Kenndy to slander, blackmail, and remove King from the civil rights movement using wiretap and other information on his personal affairs.  The most outrageous was a scurrilous effort to deliver incriminating information to King and his wife, hinting that his suicide should be the remedy.  Then there is Jonathan Eig’s well-received biography last year, King: A Life, which as the Times’ review argued,

  …is the first comprehensive biography of King in three decades. It draws on a landslide of recently released White House telephone transcripts, F.B.I. documents, letters, oral histories and other material, and it supplants David J. Garrow’s 1986 biography “Bearing the Cross” as the definitive life of King, as Garrow himself deposed recently in The Spectator. It also updates the material in Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy about America during the King years.

I’ve read Garrow and the Branch trilogy, as well as the Hoover book.  I’m half-way through the Eig biography, so I’ve gotten by the documented long-term relationship with Dorthy Cotton.  I’ve taken a break on the eve of the Washington Memorial speech and the momentous rally after reading way too much information based on the wiretaps of King’s night before calls to his family and a string of mistresses in different cities.

I’m not saying it wasn’t true, but there’s an “ugh” quality to it all.  Privacy, illegally and politically compromised at the highest levels of government in huge ethical breaches, that now based on public information and disclosure rules becomes part of the historical record and grist for everyone’s mill.  The fact that it’s true, still doesn’t make it right.  Eig may have meant no harm.  He was just doing his job as a historian.  His argument along with the reviewers is that this is a picture of the man in full, both great and brilliant, flawed and human.

Fani Willis and the rest of us can all admit to being flawed and human, just not great and brilliant.  The “changing the world” thing is a harder problem.  King did.  Willis, maybe?  The rest of us, in fact all of us, need to make changing the world a lifework and project.  I worry that once the criteria for judging one’s effort is not simply the work, but the slippery slope that makes us all human, then we might lose a grip on the objective reality, and allow all of the subjective to come rushing in, including the package of biases and prejudices that are part and parcel of all people.

At least on King’s day, respect should be given, but the more clay feet are the issue, the more we’re all pulled into the mud and lose sight of the stars.