So I’m standing in line to meet Bryan Cranston—ya know, the “Breaking Bad” guy, the one in the tighty whities.
It is a warm New York City summer night, and even though I’m supremely excited about the selfie I’m about to snap with a bonafide celebrity, my mind is elsewhere, racing. I keep thinking back to the show I’ve just seen Cranston perform in, “All the Way,” a drama about Lyndon B. Johnson and his presidency during the Civil Rights Era. I keep thinking back to what I learned.
Martin Luther King Jr. had an affair?
The man behind me is clamoring about the autographs he’s secured from movie stars around the world, but I’m only half listening. A security guard straightens up our line and a few of the lesser-known actors come streaming out of the theater’s side door. I see the man who played J. Edgar Hoover. He smiles at us and waves.
Could Martin Luther King Jr. really have been a bad person?
Earlier that night, that same man had a very different expression on his face. One scene in the show depicted a paranoid Hoover conducting FBI surveillance on King—and discovering that the powerful reverend had been involved in several extramarital affairs, even organizing orgies.
Sitting in the audience, the news stunned me. Not once, in all my years of social studies and AP U.S. History and Black History Month programs had I ever heard Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most influential men in the last century and an inspiration to the generations that came after him. He had a dream, and unlike so many of us who would let dreams die out of fear or trepidation, he made it live. He died to make it live.
And now, here I am in line for a silly signature, gnawed and made bitter by the news of infidelity within one of our greatest American heroes. I’m scrolling through articles on my iPhone, reading about how even Jackie Kennedy gossiped about his sexcapades; how the FBI tried to make King kill himself by telling him they had proof of his affairs; how strained the marriage between Coretta King and her husband really was.
Just then, Cranston walks out of the side door. The crowd erupts and a security guard stations him at the front of the line, a spot from which he will proceed slowly and intentionally to each fan for a selfie or autograph. Cranston’s face is freshly scrubbed of his performance make-up, and only the lines around his eyes reveal the lifetime of expressions Cranston has produced.
He’s just a few feet from me when I realize something – Bryan Cranston is just a man. Sure, he’s Walter White, the greatest anti-hero of television literature; he’s also Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the most legislative presidents in American history. But this tired guy signing autographs and smiling for pictures ... this is just Bryan.
My mind returns to King—could it be that he, too, was just a man? We have remembered him for his strengths, for his achievements. The news that he had flaws should not be news at all; it should be reassuring, a comforting reminder that even one of the greatest among us made mistakes. Why should I have ever expected my teachers to include his sins in the lesson plans? We study greatness, not its greatest weaknesses.
Suddenly, it’s my turn—Bryan Cranston is looking at me expectedly. I ask for a photo, but I also ask for a scowl. I want a picture of his murderous grimace, the one that makes him Walter White, the greatest drug lord on television. He laughs, obliges, then challenges me: “Can you scowl, too?”
I give it my best, but in the picture, it’s clear which one of us scowls professionally. I thank him, he thanks me and the actor moves on down the line to another fan.
Maybe Bryan Cranston has dark secrets. Apparently, Martin Luther King Jr. had them. I know I do. In fact, if all three of us had one thing in common, it would be this: each of us is, at the end of the day, just a man. We make mistakes.
And, we make pictures. This moment of cognitive dissonance passes, and I head off into the night’s din of Times Square and subway stations and street vendors. I carry with me the image of two men grimacing. Our failures and iniquities are not written in red on our chests. Nor are our victories.
We look good.
R.J. Vogt is a senior in College Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.