Martin Was Like Us (Kinda)

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With the publicity over the new MLK memorial on the Washington Mall, several bloggers have weighed in with fresh reflections on King’s legacy.  Over at The Negro Intellectual, there’s this thoughtful commentary (originally from January 2011) on some lesser- known images of Dr. King shooting pool:

We often deify him as a martyr. What should be emphasized is that at the end of the day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was simply a man. His ability to play pool should only remind us of our shared experiences as part of our larger kinship ties—the brotherhood of humanity. When we make King a martyr we also conveniently make him so “great” that he doesn’t even seem human. Dr. King had self-doubt; he had joy and pain in his life, just as we all have had. Placing King on a pedestal makes it easier for us not to be accountable to each other and to society as a whole. We begin to say to ourselves, “I can’t do what he did. I’m just a regular person—I’m can’t be Dr. King.”

When you see the picture of King playing pool do not view the image just as a historical moment, but see yourself in the photo. See Dr. King as not just a leader, but as a man. King showing up in the pool halls, bars, and community centers was not just an attempt by him to see the people or connect with them; he was one of them—and by extension one of us.

Read the full post here.

I like this post because it invites all of us to remember Martin King’s humanness.  He was a person with strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us.  For many people, the images of King playing pool are a surprising visual reminder of that.

So, too, of the critiques and reminders of King’s lack of progressivity on matters of gender.  I’m thinking here of perspectives offered by his contemporaries Septima Clark and Ella Baker, in particular.  (For a great intro to Septima Clark, see Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s article here; on Ella Baker, see, e.g., this article by Charles Payne).  We’re all imperfect — in imperfectly different ways —  but that doesn’t mean we all aren’t capable of great things,  which I think is precisely the point of The Negro Intellect’s blog post.

That being said, yeah, I wish heroes were perfect.  But in reminding ourselves that heroes are human, we — the pool players, sexists and _____s [fill in the blank] among us — remind ourselves that the human capacity for greatness can flourish in spite of our individual and collective flaws.

-Bridget Crawford

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