In his 1991 memoir, Breaking Barriers, journalist Carl Rowan writes that in 1964 congressman John Rooney told him that he and his congressional committee had heard J. Edgar Hoover play an audiotape of an apparent orgy held in King's Washington hotel suite. Over the sounds of a couple having intercourse in the background, according to Rooney, King could be heard saying to a man identified as Abernathy, "Come on over here, you big black motherfucker, and let me suck your dick."
What a great visual and a funny story.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was dedicated today. As a country, we can breath a collective exhalation as racism is finally dead, Dr. King's dream achieved, and a Black President, the goal of the long Black Freedom Struggle has been elected. The memorial is a symbol of America's great triumph over white supremacy.
Of course, those are narratives best suited for a flattened version of history, one more fit for children and the willfully ignorant than for truth seekers and truth tellers. A country needs its lies, mythologies, and fictions. A country should also take account of how far it has come, while also realizing how much work remains. In all, history is the thing of cowards and free-riders (Herman Cain for example) who create fictions of their participation in righteous struggles (how every black person has relatives who marched with King and The Movement).
The reality is that most folks stand aside and watch history happen around them. Moreover, in reflecting on the evils of the past, no one is ever responsible ("my family never owned slaves"; "we were immigrants who came here after slavery"), it was always "those people" and never us. Most folks were good, the bad were in the minority, shadows who hovered in the closets and alleyways of our collective memory. When there is goodness everyone wants to own a piece of it. Where there is bad, most run away from how it benefited them. Lies are comforting things--especially when we convince ourselves that they are true.
I like my heroes will all of their complications and not despite them. Like all Americans, and black and brown folks in particular, I owe Dr. King and the other freedom fighters in the movement a debt that I can never repay. This is a given that should always be acknowledged. I also celebrate Dr. King's legacy as a real man, a thinking man, a loving man, and a flawed man.
He yelled "I'm fucking for Jesus!" and "I am not a Negro tonight!" while displaying his "compulsive sexual athleticism" with multiple women in one evening. Brother King was a shrewd strategist and provocateur who shamed white America by exposing its violent ugliness and hypocrisy. Dr. King plagiarized portions of his dissertation and speeches. He was also a calculating master of realpolitik. And of course Dr. King was prophetic as he faced down death: I cannot help but to honor a person who meets fate with their eyes open. In our shared black vernacular, Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was "real folk."
As Americans engage in a little hero worship today with the dedication of Dr. King's monument, let's not forget that he was one of the most unpopular people in America (with a significant percentage of whites, and no small number of blacks) at the time of his death. Let us also not forget that the United States government harassed, threatened, and undermined the Civil Rights Movement. The FBI was particularly obsessed with Dr. King as they famously urged him to commit suicide in order to save face for his various peccadilloes and "indiscretions."
When I look at the Dr. King memorial I think of those efforts to destroy him, and how unpopular he was while alive. I love him even more for his perseverance in the face of such opposition. We should honor his greatness and full humanity; on this day and all others Dr. King's memory deserves more than childish platitudes.