Heroes aren’t always heroic.
It is wrong to try to sanitize our icons in order to make sure all of the facts about them fit the saccharine narrative we want to remember.
No one talks about Thomas Jefferson owning and possibly fathering children with slaves. That doesn’t feel good that the man who wrote “all men are created equal” actually owned and probably abused “people” who weren’t free at all.
Everyone loves John F. Kennedy now. We all like to quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We love his vision to get our space program to the moon.
But fewer of us want to talk about the other side of the JFK coin that included serial infidelity and constant medication for chronic pain.
We can’t accept people for who they were or who they are. We have to have heroes who are somehow superhuman in virility, vitality and virtue.
This weekend will be an incredible example of that condition.
As we celebrate the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on the Civil Rights Movement and our society as a whole, we will hear a lot about his dream, how he had been to the mountaintop and even his letter from a Birmingham jail.
But how many will remember his frailties and failures? He was just a man like any of us. He had many strengths. but he wasn’t perfect.
His life is proof that perfection isn’t required to affect significant change in society.
You will be hard-pressed to find a member of the media willing to speak harshly about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.
That is as it should be. But that wasn’t always the case.
King gave one speech in particular that lost him a lot of friends.
Exactly one year before an assassin’s bullet ended his life, King gave a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.”
The results of that speech were equally historic but far less quoted than many of his other orations.
After he left the lectern, King had few friends in politics or the press. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post editorial board said he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
King wasted no time in stating his purpose in the speech.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam,” he told the crowd gathered at the Riverside Church in New York City. “The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
Page 2 of 3 - King had begun to feel the weight of standing against the cultural current of both racial bigotry and pseudo-patriotic support of the war in Vietnam.
He knew that responses like that of the Washington Post were coming, but he spoke anyway.
“Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern,” he said. “I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
King said his main opposition to the war was the diversion of funds from programs for the poor that were helping to improve the fate of those who had been held back by a racist society.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube,” he said.
But this is also the speech that moved him up on the list of possible communist sympathizers and got is phones tapped and activities monitored by the FBI.
King noted that America was a strange liberator for the French Colony of Vietnam because we had failed to recognize their liberated government and had added military muscle and funding when the French grew tired of the war on their own behalf.
He played Devil’s advocate on behalf of the communist government in North Korea a little too well for the tastes of the media and political establishment watching its sons and daughters fighting a horrifying war in southeast Asia.
King made it clear that he supported the soldiers and didn’t want to hurt them, but he believed America needed to examine its own motives.
“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” he said. “It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.”
King was far from the only person – civil rights leader or otherwise – who had strong and varied opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Thankfully, history has remembered King more for the good work he did on civil rights than crossing swords with the Johnson administration on foreign policy.
Page 3 of 3 - We should aspire to make King’s dream a reality. We should learn from the man who has been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land.
But we can also learn from the resolve even when his positions weren’t as popular.
Kent Bush is the publisher of the Butler County Times Gazette and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org