On March 22, 1956, the 27-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was having a horrible day. He’d just been convicted for his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and sentenced to pay $1,000 or spend 386 days in jail. After the ruling and motion to appeal, he walked out of the courthouse a temporarily free man, but his spirit was shaken.
All of a sudden, his wife Coretta rushed at him, threw her arms around him, and kissed him in front of about 300 people who’d gathered outside. The biggest smile ever captured on King swept across his face, and his eyes lifted to the heavens with the giddiness of a young man in love.
In the photo that caught this moment, we see a side of him that sometimes gets lost in our remembrances. For all the important things that Dr. King would go on to do in his life, that day he was just a regular young man whose rough day was made better by a little sugar from the one he loved.
Remembering King as a man, not just a legend
Today, the nation pauses for a moment to pay homage to the legacy of Dr. King. During his less than fifteen years in the national spotlight, he became the voice and embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Our perception of him is deeply influenced by the iconic pictures and films of King delivering powerful speeches, leading marches in the Deep South, and with his hand outstretched towards the sea of people at the 1963 March on Washington.
These many images and the society-shifting changes that his efforts helped bring about have elevated him to a heroic status with a larger-than-life character. This deification pushed him into a place in our memories that sometimes feels beyond our reach of comprehension as fellow mortals.
Yet, as we celebrate him, it is vitally important that we remember that he was just an everyday man, albeit quite gifted and in a special time. By humanizing the historic figure, we make his significant accomplishments and contributions more accessible and tangible to us all. (We also make his sacrifice that much more poignant.) King was just like the men and women we have all met who use their God-given talents to inspire, help, and uplift others.
By remembering King as human, in addition to heroic, we might be better able to see in ourselves his ability to reach for the mountaintop of equality — a goal we are still striving for.
Revisiting snapshots of King’s life
One need only look beyond the traditional images to get a glimpse of the real man. There are numerous photos of him chatting over dinner and hanging out with his kids. There is the picture of Dr. King looking quite comfortable sitting on a pool table and preparing to take a behind-the-back shot. Though dapper in the sort of dark suit we are used to seeing him in, the confident smirk on his face is characteristic of the black male swagger that we see in our fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles today. Like many of our contemporary community leaders, King was just as comfortable in the neighborhood pool hall as he was in professional settings.
We also get a glimpse of King’s approachability by reading the column he wrote for Ebony magazine titled Advice for Living. In these articles, King replied to the magazine’s readers seeking his counsel on a range of issues. In reading his responses to civil rights questions, we see the King we remember advocating for equal treatment and integration, but taking the bluster of his famous speeches down to the level of friendly exchange.
One young lady wrote in saying the man she liked was trying to pressure her into sex. In his response, we see a side of King that echoes the wise men and women of our own familiar surroundings. He told her to simply be the best woman she could be, and if a man “ceases dating you because you refuse to engage in the sexual act, you can be assured he is not genuinely interested in you.”
He wrapped up by assuring her she can do much better than those sorry excuses for men — advice you, too, would give any loved one.
Fatherly advice for the masses
When a white teen confessed his love for a young black woman, he asked Dr. King if the Bible outlaws interracial relationships. King replied that it is not forbidden, and that marriage is “a mutual agreement between individuals. Individuals marry, not races.” And in many other answers dealing with things such as insecurities about dark skin, alcoholic parents, and a northern family worried about moving south, we could likewise imagine our own elders doling out the same counsel as concerned nurturing.
But even in his most iconic moments, King the man was there under the veneer of King the prophet.
On the day that Dr. King was killed, after delivering his prophetic speech I’ve Been to the Mountaintop the night before, the real, everyday person was on display. Feeling stressed out and recovering from being ill, he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette needing to clear his mind, even in the wake of his memorable evening of inspiring others. Yes, even the divinely blessed have imperfections and weaknesses. He was shot moments later, and his friends removed the pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket to keep his habit a secret.
Humanizing a King to celebrate him
Dr. King was a talented black man who did extraordinary things. His example becomes more meaningful and inspirational when we remember this critical fact, and that he was a man first, and extraordinary on top of that. By lowering the perception of him from the stratosphere and bringing it back down to earth, we realize that the power to bring about change exists in all.
In fact, the need to humanize King is probably a partial motivation for the distasteful party flyers that always seem to circulate promoting parties at around this time of year. The man that shot pool in the ‘hood, and floated when his beautiful wife kissed him, is the same man who has a national holiday and a statue on the National Mall. People want to feel an intimacy with him, just like the close relationship he seemed to share with readers of his Ebony column.
Just like King, we all have women and men in our communities that are gifted with talents that they selflessly share. On this day that we celebrate King’s legacy, many of them will heed the call to service on this day and carry out service projects across the country.
In this way, they are not only honoring the King legacy, but more importantly, they are remembering the actions of King the human being, who’s extraordinary qualities of goodness are part of the capacity for goodness in all human beings.
Recognizing King’s basic humanity helps us discover his heroism within each of us.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.