April 3, 2011

Forty-three years ago today Martin Luther King Jr. was slain here on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Within hours of his death, as the nation erupted in flames, lawmakers began to propose a national holiday in his name. Today, King is enshrined in the pantheon of our greatest heroes — an icon, a saint, untouchable.

King will become further enshrined in our public memory in August, when the four-acre memorial to him officially opens on the Mall. The King we remember will remain frozen in time: Aug. 28, 1963, the day he delivered the Dream Speech.

But the King who came to Memphis in April of 1968 was a very different man from the one we’ve come to venerate. A fierce critic of the Vietnam War, King had begun to preach an uncomfortable gospel that involved the radical redistribution of wealth. As he became more controversial, his popularity had sagged. Key allies in Washington had abandoned him. He’d gained weight, was sleeping poorly, and was drinking and smoking more. He received frequent death threats. His marriage was strained from his travels and dalliances. One of his mistresses, in fact, was staying at the Lorraine the night before he was killed.

His peripatetic life — what his aides called his “War on Sleep” — had taken a tremendous toll on King’s body, soul and psyche. He talked increasingly of giving it all up and going on a long sabbatical. “Martin Luther King is finished,” he said at his lowest moment in Memphis, a week before he was killed.

Which is to say that King was a human being: flawed, vulnerable, uncertain about the future, subject to appetites and buffeted by the extraordinary stresses of his position. His civil rights cause was holy, but he was a sinner. His place in the American canon seemed far from inevitable in the spring of 1968.

Hollywood, uncertain how to deal with a saint, has only recently begun to grapple with the sturm und drang of his life story. Four major film projects are in development, including an HBO miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey and based on the trilogy by Taylor Branch; a Steven Spielberg-driven, King family-approved biopic a la Gandhi; and a drama about the Selma marches possibly starring Will Smith.

Hopefully these and other portrayals will not seek to sanitize Martin Luther King. We have no use for Hallmark heroes — airbrushed, Photoshopped, simon-pure. We need to see King in all his pathos, imperfection and messy ambiguity. In the end, that’s the only way we can relate to his struggles or appreciate his greatness. Through his moments of very human doubt and disappointment, King remained true to the message of nonviolence at a time when the world seemed on the brink of self-annihilation. The night before he was killed, while tornado warnings wailed outside, he spoke of the threats that were out there from “our sick white brothers.” Yet he found a way to preach through his apprehensions, crying out triumphantly: “I’m not fearing any man!”

As we mark the anniversary of his death — in Memphis a full-day commemoration will feature former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young — we need to stay mindful of King’s flesh-and-blood humanity. By draping him in a halo glow, we do him little honor. By fashioning him into a fleshless icon, we place his achievements at a sterile remove. By calling our heroes superhuman we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that’s something only saints do? What made King’s eloquence so ferocious and his courage so stirring was that, like the Memphis garbage workers he came to represent, he was a man.

Hampton Sides, a writer born in Memphis, is the author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” a narrative history of the King assassination and manhunt. An updated edition of his book was released in paperback last week.