Today, the third Monday of January, this country is supposed to pause and to remember in celebration the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It may indeed strike some as curious that King is the only figure in American history that currently has a national holiday set aside exclusively in his honor.  On President’s Day, for example, we celebrate the lives of not one, but of two, presidents, Washington and Lincoln. There's not another national holiday honoring any single individual American. 

Yet there's unquestionably a large, esteemed pool from which to accept nominations for such an honor.  One may think of personages such as Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, was a two-term president, founded the University of Virginia, pioneered religious freedom in America, and ascended to excellence in his studies of education, agriculture, law, architecture, languages, and statecraft;  Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied Forces during the Second World War, and who as a righteous, impeccably honest president sagely warned of the "military-industrial complex;" Susan B. Anthony, who worked heroically for women's rights; George Washington Carver, who distinguished himself as an educator, inventor, and scientist; Thomas A. Edison, whose creative inventions transformed American life; and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose genius continues to shine forth in architectural masterpieces such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. 

The King Holiday strikes me as odd in view of the man’s checkered character and modest level of achievement.  There are those, of course, who point out the obvious:  i.e., that all mortals are less than perfect, including Dr. King, and that any imperfections he may have exhibited should not devalue the holiday in his honor.  The man is not venerated, they assert, on the basis that he was without blemish, but due to his accomplishments as a civil rights leader.  

Let’s think critically about this statement for a moment. What marks of greatness did King exhibit as a civil rights leader?  Was he learned and well educated?  It’s true that much of his mystique as a civil rights activist was his academic credentials.  He was, after all, “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  That was a rare attainment in the 1950s and 60s, especially by a black man. Yet myths die hard, particularly in this instance.  Dr. King did in fact present a doctoral dissertation to Boston University on the subject of Paul Tillich's and Henry Nelson Weiman's conceptions of God. But there’s no doubt that he plagiarized substantial portions of it.  A special investigative committee at that university reached this deflating conclusion years after his death, but decided that no worthy purpose would be served by a posthumous revocation of his degree. One wonders why salvaging the integrity of a degree is not a worthy purpose, but never mind that. It’s sadly deserving of note that other investigators have found that plagiarism was King’s general practice throughout his academic writings. 

Even if Dr. King’s degree was not awarded on the basis of his own work product, he was still a fabulously inspirational speaker, whose words stirred the hearts and minds of America.  Right?  Well, hold on.  Parts of his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, were, according to Gaven Tradoux, also shamelessly plagiarized from a speech delivered at the 1952 Republican National Convention by another black clergyman, the Rev. Archibald Carey. You be the judge.  Here are pertinent portions of the Rev. Carey’s speech: 

“We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans:
My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!

That’s exactly what we mean –
from every mountain side, let freedom ring.
Not only from the Green Mountains and White Mountains
of Vermont and New Hampshire;
not only from the Catskills of New York; 
but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, 
from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, 
from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia 
– let it ring not only for the minorities of the United States,
but for the disinherited of all the earth — 
may the Republican Party, under God, from every mountainside, 

Now consider the words of the “I Have a Dream” address:

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 
“My country, ’tis of thee, 
Sweet land of liberty, 
Of thee I sing. 
Land where my fathers died, 
Land of the pilgrim’s pride, 
From every mountainside, 
Let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. 
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. 
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. 
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. 
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

I wonder what the Rev. Carey thought when he listened to King’s speech and to the accolades it received.  Since  imitation is described as the sincerest form of flattery, he must have wondered how to characterize plagiaristic thievery.

Yet those who admire King may be willing to overlook his failure to attribute sources. They may argue that his greatest accomplishment was his stellar stature as a moral leader, whose heart was prompted by noble impulses.  This too seems a difficult case to make. King carried on many sexual liaisons outside his marriage. His conduct was so flagrant that it became almost common knowledge, particularly among black civil rights leaders and in the black community. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy spoke of his colleague's weakness for women. J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI even tried to blackmail King by mailing tape-recordings of these liaisons to his wife, Coretta Scott King. 

But my critics may be quick to counter: "You aren't so reckless as to suggest that men such as Jefferson, Eisenhower, and Wright were not guilty of sexual and moral indiscretions, are you?" To which I respond -- certainly, they were, but their greatness is not calculated in terms of, nor solely attributable to, their quality of moral leadership.

The legacy that King left behind is as problematic as his character.  Eric Hoffer’s insightful words bear repeating: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”  This is precisely what happened  to the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  Men such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, presently in the forefront of the movement, are little more than racist rabble rousers.  Numerous elements that were present in Dr. King’s leadership style are evident in the Sharpton and Jackson “racket” today.  The lines between a mentor and his disciples, while not always boldly continuous, can often nonetheless be joined by dots, as in this case.

Many academicians, politicians, pastors, and minority advocates, among others, are paying immense homage to King and to his legacy today. But facts are invariably stubborn things, which are difficult to ignore forever. If a national holiday must be dedicated to the memory of a particular individual, allow me to go on record as saying that I would not look for honorees in the Civil Rights Movement, either then or now.  Furthermore, I'm disinclined to celebrate this holiday until somebody demonstrates to me why I should do so. Call it perverse iconoclasm if you wish, but I at least like to think that I respect the truth too much to genuflect to this man's memory.

January 20, 2014