When crazed or hateful assailants cut down a popular leader or politician in the prime of life, especially when the slain individual was leading a reform movement of some kind, the person inevitably becomes a saint immediately upon death and followers start taking up the pen to write their hagiographies. Hero worship is endemic to our species. We’re looking for someone to praise, someone to point to for inspiration. Usually the martyr is a divisive figure and his immediate followers are partisan. As the years roll on and the culture gradually embraces the once revolutionary ideas, these divisive issues fall by the wayside and the deceased hero attracts respect from a broader range of the population. The Romans and Jews didn't recognize Jesus as the prophet or incarnate God that so many embrace today. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t universally liked until he died, and southern and northern scholars interpreted his historical significance differently for decades to come. This impulse to venerate icons is not ipso facto a bad thing, but we should be mindful of its shortcomings.
I used to consider MLK a “man of God,” but I no longer refer to any of my fellow primates as such, no matter how noble their actions and lofty their ideals. If King David in the Bible was “a man after God’s own heart," a absolutist monarch who committed grievous crimes and was perhaps a borderline psychopath, I suppose just about anyone can be a “man of God.” Moreover, Dr. King was not without his share of blemishes. He had a voracious (extramarital) sexual appetite and plagiarized significant portions of his Boston University Ph.D. One might argue, additionally, that MLK, along with other male leaders of the African-American civil rights movement, pushed women aside and took credit for their hard work. Upon close inspection, of course, our God-like heroes are just mammals with self-consciousness. JFK sure looked good and his "Ask Not What Your County Can Do for You" speech resonated with the American public, but in truth his presidency was rather lackluster and he did nothing to avoid the Vietnam War, notwithstanding the lame attempt by his apologists in recent years to suggest otherwise. His brother, Robert, for all his expressed concern for minorities and the poor as a presidential candidate, didn't have a strong political record on this score. While I believe Lincoln in his heart of heart was an abolitionist, we all know by now that he was a pragmatist who was willing to allow slavery in certain states so long as Johnny Reb came back into the Union.
I still rank MLK among the true heroes of American history. For all his personal blemishes, what makes MLK an exceptional Mensch is his moral courage and his casting of a wide net. He looked beyond the struggles of one particular race, it seems to me; rather, MLK, nourished on the teachings of Gandhi and Bonhoeffer, encouraged all Americans to treat each other with love and mutual respect. And like many great historical figures, MLK's status as hero came about largely from the eleventh hour of his life. His mountaintop speech captures one of those rare moments in time when God's prophet seemed poised between heaven and earth. I’d like to think that Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, and Martin Luther, in the defense of his writings at the Diet of Worms, spoke with such conviction and power. MLK was not a saint, but a flawed man who rose above himself for the sake of God and man. Alas! He paid the price for such audacity.