What Counted in Dr. King's Life

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THE loud outcry over the new autobiography of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy - that the book denigrates Martin Luther King Jr. by suggesting that Dr. King had extramarital relations the night before he was shot - hit top volume last week. Let's hope it dies down soon. The attention given to three pages in a 620-page book is out of proportion to their importance. Even if true, the story by King's right-hand man isn't going to tarnish King's greatness. In fact, it comes at a time that the figure of King looms larger. Taylor Branch's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the period is subtitled ``America in the King Years.'' King's genius is being recognized: his ability to keep himself so long at the center of a major shifting of America's political and social self. That took an extraordinary sacrifice and a transcendent ``dream'' - both of which still live on.

Few others, if any, could have played this role as well.

That King had extramarital affairs is known. It's not an admirable habit. But this needs to be put into perspective. Americans have often been unrealistic about the lives of their heroes. Revisionist history has changed that. The original Martin Luther would be called a sexist today. Gandhi felt guilty about lustful thoughts. Thomas Jefferson, too, is said to have had extramarital relations - are we ready to rescind the Declaration of Independence he wrote? Do we always know the burden another carries?

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These figures, despite their weakness, were ``great'' - ``filled with history,'' one scholar says. Black leaders might do better to let history settle the issue raised by Abernathy's book rather than trying to outdo each other in indignation.

Abernathy's account isn't a particularly commendable way for a man to treat his best friend. He could have chosen to tell the story to a scholarly biographer. Most of the book, however, gives the grim, triumphant struggles with oppression that make for a genuine appreciation of Dr. King.

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