We don't know whether Abraham Lincoln was, as a controversial new biography alleges, a homosexual. All we know is that he was -- by any kind of definition, literal or metaphorical -- a man. Similarly, we don't know all the contours of Dr. Martin Luther King's private life, though we are aware that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made it a point, via wiretaps and other clandestine devices, to maintain a dossier on King. Despite such misguided prying, we know that King too was a supreme example of manhood, in the purest sense of that term.
That public men have private energies, that they entertain passions as well as positions, is a fact of life, and it is helpful to keep that in mind on holidays like the one we have just observed, honoring the birthday of Dr. King. It is all too common on such occasions to hear tributes from the unlikeliest of sources, chiming in with praise for the great martyr by means of quoting this or that noble sentiment from one of his famous addresses. By such means do those who might have opposed Dr. King's goals during his lifetime manage to appropriate his mantle now.
We too rejoice in the unrivaled rhetoric of such passages, though we think it important to note that King was no political eunuch but a flesh-and-blood orator who could and did breathe fire. In his most famous speech, the "I Have a Dream" address, delivered to a multitude from the pulpit of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he did not shy away from speaking of "vicious racists" in Alabama or from a chastising reference to "every hill and molehill of Mississippi." Though he cautioned that civil rights advocates should avoid violence, he also warned, "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." As they say, he neither asked nor gave quarter.
And what was true of King's quest for racial justice was true also of his other great campaigns -- on behalf of economic justice for all races and for an end to the then raging Vietnam War. He was fully engaged in both endeavors at the time of his assassination here in Memphis in April 1968.
Only days earlier, on March 31st, he had spoken at the National Cathedral in Washington, in an effort to bring an end to the conflict in Southeast Asia. He did so in words that might be taken note of by the more timid change-seekers among us today, those who heed focus groups and consultants and fear to trouble the mighty:
"I've not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion," said King. "Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
"There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right."
The issue then was Vietnam, but the message still resonates, and the admonition applies to some identifiable particulars of our own time, when perhaps what we need most of all is a leader willing to go to the mountaintop and take his chances there, come what may.