I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., a passionate voice for justice and equality, but also a man whose extramarital liaisons seemed inconsistent with many of the values he preached from the pulpit. I also think, though, of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, taping intimate moments and using the tapes to try to blackmail and humiliate Dr. King. I am always puzzled by those who wish to give unfettered access to private lives to our federal law enforcement authorities, because history has shown that this is anything but a good idea.
I think of Dr. King, having worked for a peaceful transition of this country, and particularly the south, from the Jim Crow racist laws which oppressed this country, being gunned down in Memphis by James Earl Ray. Mr. King was not some angel from Heaven, but a man with the frailties and humanities that men have. When he was shot, he bled and he died.
I think of Margaret Sanger. As a public health nurse, she recognized that the Comstock Laws which made transmission of birth control across state lines a federal felony, as well as the various state laws on similar issues, caused great harm, and particularly shackled the ability of women to control their own reproductive choices. She opened a birth control clinic in defiance of the law. She helped found Planned Parenthood. She lived until 1966, and during her life, she saw birth control move from illegality to societal norm. Yet, some of her own statements about the virtues of birth control have caused pro-life folks who wish to revile her memory to stretch inappropriate things she said about social improvement through birth control into an inaccurate appearance of a whole-hearted endorsement of the wrong-headed eugenics ("selective breeding") movement. Her own life was filled with enormous challenges, and for all that she professionally set out to make, and did make, immense change, she did not suffer from perpetual happiness, and faced at least her quota of frailty and misery. In many ways, the fruit of her achievements are so widespread that people have forgotten how much her efforts did. Her enemies, by contrast, have hundreds of websites which revile her in detailed language.
I think of Mohandas Gandhi, shot by a Hindu extremist, Nathuram Godse, for advocating tolerance for and power sharing with the Moslem minority in India. Mr. Godse's brother, a minor player in the conspiracy, still brags about his role. Mr. Gandhi's wonderful writings on social, racial and gender equality, as well as non-violence, sometimes obscure his writings on the virtue of dung earthpacks as a healing device and other various unworkable health and dietary practices, mixed in among other recommendations of alternative health and quality diet practices now seen as more workable. His call for brachmarya, the abstinence from sexual relations other than for procreation, has not drawn the adherence that his emphasis on satyagraha, non-violence as a "truth force" against oppression, has drawn. He was a complex man, a flawed man, but also a man who, despite his many eccentricities, effected real change.
I think of Bob Geldof, who fronted a very likable but minor band called the Boomtown Rats. Without any great fortune, and with a waning fame that was anything but Bono-esque, he nonetheless led a massive effort to get money to the starving in Ethipia. Mr. Geldof was a determined man, by but no stretch of the imagination would he fit the stereotypes of a conventional saint. He thought he could do something to help, and he did.
Sometimes I think it's tempting to set up people as saints and martyrs, rather than people with flaws who tried. If every good person is portrayed as a saint or godling or a martyr chosen by God, then one is excused for not doing anything, absent a flashing light on the road to Damascus (note to self: look up Damascus, Texas on the map). But if in fact flawed people did these progressive things, people who dealt with sexual temptation, alcoholism, lack of personal finances, and vicious criticism, then this changes things a bit. If even imperfect people do useful things, then maybe I must figure out how to be of use.