Remembering Dr. King: Why We Must Humanize Our Heroes

by Eboni Rafus

My father was a good man.

As the eldest of five children, he stayed behind and cared for his alcoholic father after his mother divorced him and moved to Florida with the rest of my father’s siblings. He was eleven years old. As an enlisted infantry solider in the U.S. Army, he was a strong leader who climbed the ranks quickly and retired as Master Sergeant after 23 years of service.

As an ordained Baptist minister and pastor, he was an inspirational mentor and guide whose personal ministry was to serve recovering alcoholics, drug addicts and recently released felons. As a father of four, he loved and provided for his children and encouraged us to follow our higher education dreams. Furthermore he modeled what it meant to overcome obstacles and persevere through challenges by eventually going back to school to earn his bachelor’s in Human Services and his Masters in Social Work.

Yet, my father was not a perfect man.

Like all of us, he had flaws. Despite being an excellent son, soldier, minister, teacher, father, and friend, he was not an ideal husband. The truth is, my beloved father cheated on my mother for at least eighteen years of their twenty-five year marriage.

I truly believe that my father loved my mother. When I was young child, I felt it in the ways in which he was affectionate and loving towards her. When I was a teenager I sensed it when my Dad would consult with me about which piece of jewelry to get my Mom for her birthday or Christmas, often nervously showing me his purchases and asking if I think she will like them. When I was twenty-five and my father was dying from cancer, he confided in me that he worried what would happen to my mother once he died and could no longer provide for her. He made me promise that my siblings and I would take care of her after he passed away. He loved my mother, I’m sure, but he was not faithful to her.

Knowing about my father’s infidelities complicates my memory of him. Though my father is one of my personal heroes, knowing that he is a multi-faceted, flawed human being prevents me from thinking of him as a saint. Though I am proud of my father’s many accomplishments, knowing that he did have some failings prevents me from putting him on a pedestal. This is fine with me, because I don’t believe our heroes belong up there. No, not even one of our most revered and celebrated leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King.

We know Dr. King was smart, strategic, and one of the most charismatic and impactful leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. We admire him not only for what he achieved as a man, but what he represents as an icon: peace, freedom, and equality. Yet, just as the Civil Rights Movement itself wasn’t perfect, neither was the man who led it. The truth is that Dr. King gave effective and inspirational speeches, guided the activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, consulted with the President of the United States, won a Nobel peace prize… AND he also cheated on his wife.

Recently, Selma, the epic film about the events surrounding the 1965 marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama to support the Selma Voting Rights Movement, has come under fire for including a scene regarding Dr. King’s infidelities. I can only assume that the detractors feel that this information tarnishes Dr. King’s legacy. However, I believe that acknowledging Dr. King’s less than perfect behavior does not make his work less meaningful. It doesn’t make his impact less profound. It merely makes the man more human.

Portraying our heroes, especially those that happen to be black men, as fully drawn, three dimensional, fallible human beings only makes their legacies more remarkable. Dr. King was not a caped crusader in a comic book. He was real. The injustices he fought against were not mythical monsters. The struggle, both external and internal, was real.

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, recently said, “We really have to deconstruct our heroes, these myths that make us feel warm and fuzzy. We’ve gotta challenge that and push that a little and there’s nothing wrong with that…”

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that our visionaries and victors are not saints, partially because it also makes room for us to acknowledge those who supported and guided them—which are often the [black] women in their lives. These women stood by our leaders—many of them formidable leaders themselves—and made sacrifices for their husbands, brothers, fathers, and should also be recognized for the work that they do. There’s nothing wrong with not placing our legends on a pedestal, as it makes their greatness more relatable and inspires others to believe that they too, despite all their shortcomings, can be heroic as well.

Demanding that we ignore or deny the shortcomings of our most celebrated historical figures we hold in high esteem also ignores and/or denies the lived experiences of the people who love them. Demanding that we omit shortcomings in the portrayal of their lives suggest that we don’t trust that our audience is rational enough to understand the complexity of the human experience or gracious enough to forgive these individuals when they fail to meet our expectations. We need to give ourselves, and our leaders, more credit.

It’s important that we portray our heroes as human because living in a fantasy world does not serve us. Knowing that my good and decent father was not a perfect man makes it easier to forgive myself when I am less than perfect myself. Knowing that he still accomplished many of his dreams despite his imperfections inspires me to continue to grow, learn and pursue my own. Understanding that Dr. King marched for equality and justice for all despite stumbling at times in his personal life reminds me that there is no reason that I shouldn’t be marching as well. After all, the best kind of hero is not one that merely allows us to look up at them in awe, but gives us the strength to act.

Photo: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and supporters in the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery (via

Eboni Rafus is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a queer writer living in Los Angeles with her pup, Stella Rue. She is a film geek, television enthusiast, pop culture junkie, nerdy academic and YA novelist. Follow her on twitter: @EboniRafus

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