Why is it so hard for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to get his due?
It seems like every time you look up, somebody is out to discredit him. First, there was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, bugging King's telephones and making up stories that he was a communist. Then came the Black Power radicals, saying King was an Uncle Tom for espousing nonviolence. From his own ranks came Ralph David Abernathy, alleging that King had an affair the night before he was killed.
And now, the state of Arizona has voted against a King holiday just as allegations were leaked to the media that King plagiarized his college thesis from the works of theologian Paul Tillich.
Contradicting previous reports, Claybourne Carson, director of the King Papers Project, said in an interview with Black Entertainment Television that the plagiarism charge has been exaggerated. "Basically, the media blew it out of proportion without explaining exactly what it was he did. King's failure to put quote marks around certain passages was a technical error. But those passages were attributed to their source in his bibliography," Carson said. "King was careless, but he wasn't a plagiarist."
King made a mistake. He did not, as some reports alleged, try blatantly to deceive.
Nevertheless, some Arizonans are using the plagiarism charge to justify not honoring King with a state holiday on his birthday. But you don't see any of them trying to do away with their beloved Columbus Day. Columbus, they say, discovered America.
Try telling that to the American Indians.
Arizona may lose its bid for the Super Bowl because of the King vote, and this has caught the attention of many in the state who do not want to lose millions of dollars in football revenue. Officials of college football's Fiesta Bowl, to be played at Arizona State University in January, have tried to quell the controversy by announcing that they will honor the memory of King during halftime ceremonies.
And the bowl officials said they would provide $100,000 for a minority scholarship fund or to endow a chair for minority students at state universities.
In the end, however, these are mere token gestures. Not only did they insult those who seek a state holiday, but they also have refired the controversy.
"This is the Wild West," said Terry Hudgins, a utility lobbyist and supporter of King Day. "Nobody in the West wants to do something with a gun at their heads, and that's the way this issue was seen in the rural areas of the state."
What seems to have escaped Hudgins is that there was no threat hanging over the state years ago when politicians there made it clear they would not support the holiday.
Julian Sanders, a contractor who led the anti-King vote, came closer to reflecting the true feelings of his constituency when he said, "King should not be honored because he was a Marxist." And he believes that because black football players get paid for doing a job, they should not care if the state has a King holiday or not.
Obviously, these are the people who need a King holiday the most.
They need time off to think: As Ellen Goodman noted, King had said prophetically in a sermon, "You don't need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. I want you to know this morning that I am a sinner like all of God's children, but I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, 'I take you in and I bless you because you tried.' "
"Here was a man, an ordinary man, with human strengths and weaknesses," Goodman wrote. "But when the time came and much was demanded of him, he found the greatness within himself. Martin Luther King 'tried' -- and he changed the world we live in."
King was not murdered because of what he wrote on a college paper. He was assassinated because of what he stood for. Arizona would do well to recognize this -- and the rest of us would do well to let him rest in peace.