Martin Luther King Jr. has been and continues to be a polarizing figure in American history. Some praise him and others despise him. He is viewed by some as a civil rights hero, by others as a communist sympathizer and a hypocritical adulterer. Ironically, his calls for a color-blind society seem to be quoted as much by conservatives as by affirmative-action-minded liberals. I don’t pretend to know the whole truth about his life; some important details are still locked away in the FBI vaults until 2027, and some questions provoke suspicion for the mere asking.
I do know that we make a mistake in sorting historical figures into a good and bad list. Real life is more nuanced than that, and all of us are a mix of good and bad. A quick and easy classification eliminates the need for study and thought to distinguish the good from the bad, or to identify the degree of goodness or badness. Hebrews 5:14 explains that it takes both maturity and practice to be able to distinguish good from evil; that distinction is apparently not as obvious as we imagine it to be.
To that end, I suggest an exercise today for people thoughtful about the meaning of MLK Day. Read his “letter from a Birmingham jail,” which is easily found online. Unlike so much commentary on his life which is colored by the bias of the commentator, these are his own words. Many of the “facts” of King’s life are in dispute, but not this letter. See if you find in it unmixed good or unmixed bad. Perhaps more likely, in the end you might discern some of both. You cannot judge his whole life by this one letter, but it might take you step beyond a mere stereotype if you give it some careful thought.