The Complicated Legacy of Dr. King

In some circles, speaking ill of Dr. King is blasphemous. But wasn’t he just a man like ourselves?

January 15th is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Dr. King is often the seminal figure in regards to civil rights in this country. That was a tumultuous time, and it took a lot of sacrifices by a lot of people without regard to race or gender to create a path to a brave new world. I attended a lecture/comedy show by Dick Gregory and he gave a chilling account of that time, saying that black people would leave the house in the morning not knowing if they would return home alive at night, their life light extinguished by the very entities sworn to protect them.

Dr. King represents for me a mirror for all of us, but not in a conventional way. His legacy is almost undisputed; as I’ve already alluded to, even though countless others fought the good fight, he is revered with the gravitas of a godlike figure who was able to crumble the walls of the establishment with his words. The narrative is that he was unflappable, relentlessly working to erode the hypocrisy that the borders of this country personified in his day: reciting the creed of human equality while socially and overtly endorsing subclasses of citizens. In the black community in some circles, speaking ill of Dr. King is blasphemous.

The mirror that Dr. King represents is simple: what is ‘goodness’ really about? What does it mean to be a ‘good’ person? There’s the Dr. King that we all know, and the Dr. King that remains largely concealed from the mythos. Dr. King, the adulterer, having a penchant for trysts with white women, no less. Dr. King, the smoker. These are values that we don’t associate with heroes. The man who led the chorus of ‘we shall overcome’ had personal demons that he couldn’t quell himself. So who exactly is Dr. King … legendary leader who was incorruptible, or this ordinary man who played his public persona while simultaneously burying his skeletons deeply in the closet?

This argument applies not only to him but to every one of us in all walks of life. Ray Lewis is an all pro NFL player who is certainly headed for the hall of fame. He has a gift to inspire people with impassioned play and speeches. Yet, he is also remembered by many for a night where a man lost his life in Lewis’ company, rumored to be at his hand. In those who know him more intimately, his large family spewing from his loins is legendary, being a father to multiple children with multiple women. These types of socially deviant behaviors are frowned upon. So who exactly is Ray Lewis?

Usually it’s the decision of the storyteller who gets to dictate legacy. That’s why a lot of people don’t know about Dr. King or Ray Lewis’ shortcomings; those details are rarely told. Yet they are central to the identity of these men, not so much that they are contradictory to their true essence and character, but they are pieces to the larger jigsaw puzzle. There is no complete picture without their shortcomings.

Which brings us full circle to the question of what is ‘good’? What kind of legacy will we be remembered for? Or better yet, why do we expect more of others than we do ourselves? We want our heroes to be indestructible, without blemish, yet want others to tolerate us in our frailty.

At first I would say ‘goodness’ or the concept of being ‘good’ reliant upon subjectivity. We as individuals decide what’s good for us. I love Dr. King and Ray Lewis, but others abhor them. I don’t view them with rose colored glasses; I know full well that they are flawed individuals. I would expect no less of them since they were brought into this world under the same conditions we all are and subject to the same trappings. Yet, to be achievers on the scale they are, takes much more than what most of us can muster.

This has provided me a working definition of good. Goodness is a connection, an inspiration, a movement to be greater than now. Its not that we’re inherently bad or that anything is wrong with us, but we can always be better, or at least strive to be, and that pursuit will result in us rising the tide of the world. That is the beauty of Dr. King, Ray Lewis, or anyone else we would want to label as ‘good’; not that they are without flaw, but that they can be examples of the attainable.


Read more on Historical Perspectives on Goodness on The Good Life.

Image credit: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

About Tim Brown

TB is a single 30 something living in Atlanta, GA. He is a former collegiate athlete and now
works in academia. Mentor, brother, and friend are all titles in his list of accomplishments.


  1. Richard…goodpoint.

    • og-I’ve become tight with one of the VVAW founders and another dude, a photographer from Detroit who covered the riots, moved on to the Chicago Convention and settled in LA–both men I’d trust my life with. My photographer buddy ended up at Newsweek for a couple decades covering all sorts of things. The Panthers warned him about the CIA, and he thought they were crazy. Then one day some guys in suits showed up at the office and confiscated film from a protest. VVAW ended the Vietnam War. Period. They had some help from their friends, but there was a blood bond that connected them to that cause and personal bs was not allowed to get in the way, and they won. We have much to learn from all these cats.

  2. Ben…One of the former Weathermen lives-I live in Oakland- around the block from me. He’s married and has a kid-he’s a decent fellow.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Pointing out the flaws in an all-too-human icon is a bad thing, or at least neutral and not relevant to the good work the icon did.
    Unless you don’t like the guy in which case, Jefferson and Hemmings; Washington had slaves until he freed them; um JFK was a serial abuser–no, wait, he was a Good Guy. Forget it.
    Tough to keep up.

  4. Amen, ogwriter. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Panthers, and some other radical folks worked together back in the day, Though goals may not have been identical, VVAW Malcolm, the Panthers, the Lakota warriors, the Weatherman, etc, etc, understood solidarity, supported each other in the shadows and the streets, and got things done. That’s why they scared Nixon so much. A bunch of white, black, red, and brown cats–many with lots of combat experience–pissed off and channeling that rage to come together in defiance of Empire. It was a slave-owner’s nightmare. Men and women alike paid dearly, but they knew they would, and they put themselves out there anyway, and we should be celebrating them every day.

  5. TB… As someone who lived through this era- living among the Panthers, they had a free breakfast program in the Haight and a office in the Haight Fillmore- and was a disciple of MLK and a fan of Malcolm, it took all of their efforts to change America. It wasn’t just nonviolence,but the threat of riots in summer made a difference.Personally,I don’t care about the other stuff,mistakes he made.If it wasn’t for him,women wouldn’t be where they are today,especially white women.White women used discrimination lawsuits to great advantage.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    The most popular view of MLK is the most sanitized, most mainstream view about his career. For most people, the narrative stops at the “I Have a Dream” speech, which is a great work of oratory. It’s also the most uncontroversial language he could have used at that point, completely mainstreaming his message.

    What is remembered far less often is what King did over the years after that speech, because those things made too many urban, liberal, middle class whites uncomfortable. He spoke out against the Viet Nam War. He suggested that racism was a national problem, not just a Southern problem. (What? We don’t have any race issues here in the North!) He suggested that urban ghettoes and black poverty were just another form of injustice, and the next thing to explore may be some economic redistribution. Way too close to home for white people who liked him better when it was all about those people in the South.

    Way more palatable to talk about black kids and white kids playing with each other, like in the I Have a Dream speech. That’s really not all that radical, considering that even in the days of slavery black children and white children might play with each other on the plantation. If he had said in the speech that black people and white people should be able to marry each other if they want, the speech would have been much less popular…..

    So, the more socially radical king has gotten dropped in favor of the kumbaya, white-safe version. Americans have a way of bleaching out the radical sides of their heroes to make them safer for conservative consumption. Helen Keller, for example? Spent most of her adult life as a spokesperson for Marxist-Leninism, and was an actual pro-Stalin communist. Who knew?

  7. I don’t think comparing Ray Lewis to MLK is a very apt analogy in any way, shape or form. However, I do think a discussion of how effective MLK’s nonviolent ideology would have been without the threat of the Panthers and Malcom X and could be a great place to begin a journey into the important and fundamental questions asked by Ward Churchill in his essay “Pacifism as Pathology.” Those of us on the left so often worship the overtly saintly acts of leaders who, by their very nature as human beings, are flawed, and eventually we find ourselves comparing athletes to civil rights leaders.

    Speaking of athletes though, I do have to give it up for Sir Charles, who very publicly and artfully–I know, I know–called out MLK’s homophobic daughter on national television last year.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Goodness is if we like it afterwards. If we don’t like it, it’s not good.

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