There are few historical figures I hold in high regard. Most who have made themselves notable enough to be recorded in posterity are remembered for their use of violence or trickery to gain power, even when they used that power wisely. Marcus Aurelius left some brilliant aphorisms and seemed to have his heart in the right place, but spent his life waging war. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson did great things, but their attitudes and practices in regard to slavery raise questions.
Only a handful stand out as unimpeachable: Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, Mohandas Gandhi, and MLK.
One of our usual UPS drivers is a short, gregarious white guy I'll call "Biff." Biff is in the Air National Guard in addition for driving the Brown Machine, and he recently spent half a year in Iraq doing Dubya's dirty work. Biff and I get along most of the time, because our brief encounters each day only allow for surface conversation and bantering. The other day he kind of irked me, though.
Just before he left after loading a few pallets on his truck, Biff said, "Are you guys going to be open on Monday?"
One of my co-workers didn't connect the dots, didn't remember that Monday is MLK day. He said, "Why would we be closed?"
Biff smiled like an imp and said, "Monday's James Earl Ray Day."
Over the last three years Biff's been picking up at our dock I've never gotten the impression he's a bigot. Actually, I'd put money on the likelihood he's not, but that kind of offhanded stupidity really frosted my ass that time. In one of those rare moments when the perfect comment occurs to me at the time it's needed I knew how to kick the legs out from under this Chair Force officer, this super-patriot Dubya supporter, this smug knucklehead.
I said, "So by your logic we should be calling September 11 'Al Qaeda Day.'"
The imp-grin slid off Biff's face and he looked at me like--well, like I'd just called him out for being an ass. "I was just trying to be funny," he said.
There was a problem in my logic too, though. A true parallel to my comment would be to call April 4 "James Earl Ray Day," since that's the day he shot King. And really, who's unimpeachable? The evidence suggests King cheated on Coretta, maybe for most of their married lives. Gandhi admits in his own autobiography that he never treated his wife, Kasturbai, very well. Not surprising, since they were married when he was 13 and she was younger. And Diogenes has his detractors (I think it's that whole "masturbating in public" thing). And all we know of Socrates is what Plato (a great admirer) chose to record.
I guess it's enough that King's public works were significant, courageous, and selfless. One might wonder what he'd have to say about the current state of the union, and Colbert I. King has. His column this morning makes a pretty clear case.