It is unfortunate that religion often seems to find its way into history textbooks as propaganda or not at all. While claims that the United States of America is, or ever has been, a Christian nation are dubious at best, it is undeniable that the Christian religion has had a massive impact on American history.
In addition to concealing the impact of religion, the way we are invited to think about history often turns historical figures into heroes or villains. This is unfortunate because the truth is often far more complicated. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was complicated. What follows is a brief reflection that does not do justice to the man, but maybe will help to keep him from being a myth or a legend, and instead help him remain a man.
The role of Dr. King’s faith in his work is often understated. He was a Baptist minister, but he struggled at times with what some might consider some of the basic tenants of the Christian faith. Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, who edited and published Dr. King’s papers after de died, described how King wondered at times if some of the content of the Bible was mythical. King questioned the historicity of Jonah’s fish experience and even Jesus’ resurrection. He struggled with passages in the Bible that seemed to suggest that slavery was acceptable.
I suspect King might have especially struggled with passages like 1 Peter 2:18-20:
“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.
Yet verses like what followed may have helped to shape his program of nonviolent resistance:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:18–25, NRSV)
Dr. King also struggled in his moral life. After he died, it was discovered that he had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation.
The readers of King’s dissertation, L. Harold DeWolf and S. Paul Schilling, a professor of systematic theology who had recently arrived at Boston University, failed to notice King’s problematic use of sources. After reading a draft of the dissertation, DeWolf criticized him for failing to make explicit “presuppositions and norms employed in the critical evaluation,” but his comments were largely positive. He commended King for his handling of a “difficult” topic “with broad learning, impressive ability and convincing mastery of the works immediately involved.” Schilling found two problems with King’s citation practices while reading the draft, but dismissed these as anomalous and praised the dissertation in his Second Reader’s report. . . . As was true of King’s other academic papers, the plagiaries in his dissertation escaped detection in his lifetime. His professors at Boston, like those at Crozer, saw King as an earnest and even gifted student who presented consistent, though evolving, theological identity in his essays, exams and classroom comments. . . .Although the extent of King’s plagiaries suggest he knew that he was at least skirting academic norms, the extant documents offer no direct evidence in this matter. Thus he may have simply become convinced, on the basis of his grades at Crozer and Boston, that his papers were sufficiently competent to withstand critical scrutiny. Moreover, King’s actions during his early adulthood indicate that he increasingly saw himself as a preacher appropriating theological scholarship rather than as an academic producing such scholarship.
He also struggled with his sexual behavior. His friend Ralph David Abernathy spoke of Dr. King’s indiscretions in his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.
Martin and I were away more often than we were at home; and while this was no excuse for extramarital relations, it was a reason. Some men are better able to bear such deprivations than others, though all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments. We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.
In addition to his personal vulnerability, he was also a man who attracted women, even when he didn’t intend to, and attracted them in droves. Part of his appeal was his predominant role in the black community and part of it was personal. During the last ten years of his life, Martin Luther King was the most important black man in America. That fact alone endowed him with an aura of power and greatness that women found very appealing. He was a hero — the greatest hero of his age — and women are always attracted to a hero. – Ralph David Abernathy
In spite of King’s doubts, and maybe even rejection of what many consider to be basic Christian teachings, we would be hard-pressed to find a better example of Christian striving for justice in the political realm. Non-violent protest was not the only avenue pursued in King’s day by those seeking racial justice, but it was the one King followed. While it is tragic that King’s message is often presented devoid of any particularly Christian content, it does speak volumes that his message was able to transcend his faith tradition.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King is of much more use to us as a man, doubtful and flawed, than he ever could be as a legend or a myth. He is a reminder that cheaters can change the world, that believers can proclaim truth even as they grapple with uncertainty. Dr. King’s story demonstrates what we already know to be true from looking within ourselves: that we are complicated mixtures of good and evil and that no label of color, creed, or character is sufficient to encapsulate us.