Many tributes were paid to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day commemorating his assassination 43 years ago. One commentary in particular caught my eye and stirred my ire. The noted author, Hampton Sides, contemplating the upcoming August 28th unveiling of Dr. King's Memorial on our nation's Mall and the development of four new documentaries about his life, wrote that we should resist deifying Dr. King and remember that he wasn't a saint, but a "sinner."
When we erect monuments to our nation's heroes, it is to memorialize them and celebrate their contributions to our country. When standing in the shadow of their magnificent statues, I want to be inspired by their greatness, not reflect upon their character flaws or human frailties. Whenever I visit the Jefferson Memorial, I stand in awe of this true Renaissance man. Would Mr. Sides, instead, have me remember that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence with one hand while holding slaves with the other? Should I ponder Jefferson's hypocrisy rather than his contribution to history?
Or when I stare into the majestic face of the man who held our Union together and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, should I be mindful that President Lincoln once held a low opinion of black people and even thought that we should be shipped back to Africa?
No. I look with reverence and respect upon these giants who, despite their human deficiencies, helped make America a beacon of hope to people the world over.
I can attest that Dr. King never pretended to wear a halo or crown of moral purity. He was not the first man to grow weary from the cross he bore or to be abandoned by his friends in his hour of need. He had to face beatings and bullwhips, fire hoses and fierce dogs -- and an FBI director who wiretapped Dr. King's every conversation, did everything in his power to destroy his mission and morale and even urged him to commit suicide. In the face of such hatred and malice, Dr. King remained fearless and unbowed.
What made Dr. King so special was not only his courage, but also his decency and humanity. I once had asked him to visit a young, mentally troubled woman who had painted his portrait. The kindness he displayed towards that artist made both her day and mine.
He was a humble man who had a great sense of serenity about what life had in store for him. One night a group of us had dinner at Trader Vic's restaurant in the Palmer House in Chicago. We each had been given as a souvenir, an exquisite, long-stemmed glass. One of the men placed the glass in his coat pocket. As we passed through a crowded revolving door, the glass shattered, making a loud popping sound. Everyone ducked, except Dr. King who stood and just looked at us and smiled:
"You all are always saying that you want to protect me. That you're willing to take a bullet for me. You hear a little popping sound and you hit the deck. Let me assure you that you're all safe. When that bullet comes, it's coming just for me. It has my name on it."
None of us knew that night just how prophetic his words would be.
Dr. King never sought personal glory or harbored ambitions for sainthood. He had a Dream that one day America would live up to the virtues it preached, but failed to practice. He knew he was not destined to live a long life, but he was determined to dedicate whatever time was his to ensuring that one day all Americans would proudly declare: ""Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Dr. King was indeed a man. An extraordinary man.