Martin Luther King: Thoughts on the legacy of flawed heroes

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No matter what good someone accomplishes in their lives, some will insist on defining them by their sins. This is a sad filter though which to view the world, made sadder still by the fact that the judge cannot see it. If the legacy of any figure in recent history suffers from this particular brand of myopia, it is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The civil rights icon made an indelible mark on his generation and this culture in ways that baffled those who preferred violence and continues to confuse them today, even when they can clearly see the results. But I am not writing to castigate those unfortunates. They perpetuate their own nightmares.

Instead, I want to talk about how the rest of us view our heroes. It has been said that, because history tends to judge people based on some hackneyed sum of their actions, individuals must judge these people in the same way.

But why?

Heroes can only be heroes if we promote their better qualities and diminish the lesser. Beyond the briefest acknowledgment, why dwell on those negative qualities at all? Each of us carries our own baggage and battles our own demons. We all own that which we would give back, given the chance. Be it scars or pains or rubble in our wake. This need not be the sum of us. Nor should it be what we strive to emulate.

Our goal should be to imitate until we attain the best possible qualities of our heroes. Those attributes and choices that are worth celebrating. If we hold fast to those until they become our own, we have taken from our heroes all they need to give. If we make those attributes our own, we honor the successes of those heroes and underscore what makes those traits – not just those people – heroic.

Flaws are obvious.

There is no Photoshop for character. Neither is there reason to place a person on any pedestal. But there is ample reason to celebrate the greatness of their successes without any restraint or accompanying asterisk.

If a man wishes to teach his son to hustle, he can call back to Pete Rose without any discussion of gambling and Hall of Fame snubs. If he wishes to extol virtue and honor, he can invoke Robert Lee’s spotless record at the Point and bravery in Mexico without the horror and carnage of The Wilderness or Antietam.

Those who seek to emulate heroes have no need of their heroes’ flaws. They have their own. What they need – what we all need – is the hope and inspiration that comes with hearing the stories of those who have Risen Above, Been More and Fought The Good Fight.

There is no better reason to celebrate our heroes. We do not need one. 

In closing, I would leave you with quotes from a man countless millions will celebrate today while others, in turn, curse his name. I offer only his wisdom and ask that you consider whether it holds any worth to you.


“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

 – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

 – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I'm a storyteller. Fortunately, that is also what I get paid to do. Born on a boat and bred on the back of a horse I tend to see the world a bit differently ... and I sway when I walk.

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