Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929, and his mark on the world was civil rights. He became the best-known face of the Civil Rights Movement, and his words have reverberated throughout history, translating into a statue in Washington, D.C., a national holiday, and a 2014 Academy Award winning film about his epic struggle for equal rights in Selma, Alabama.
Knowing where to start with a man who gave possibly the most influential speech of the 20th century can be tough, but I’ll tell you where we not gon’ start…
Lies about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lie #1: Martin Luther King, Jr. was popular
King was popular in the same way that Jesus was popular – a lot of people were picking up what he was laying down, and a lot of people weren’t.
According to Gallup News:
“In 1963, King had a 41% positive and a 37% negative rating; in 1964, it was 43% positive and 39% negative; in 1965, his rating was 45% positive and 45% negative; and in 1966 — the last Gallup measure of King using this scalometer procedure — it was 32% positive and 63% negative…The resulting data show that King’s image became more negative as the years went on.”
The “I Have a Dream” speech compelled the head of the F.B.I’s domestic intelligence division to label King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”
A group of clergymen even wrote to King, calling his demonstrations “unwise and untimely.”
To say that King was popular is to:
- Superimpose his venerated position in death onto his actual life
- To understate the impact his stance against the Vietnam war had on his popularity
- Dismiss the nuanced and often heated debate within black communities about how best to advance civil rights
- To whitewash the exact degree to which white America rejected King’s message of racial equality
Lie #2: Martin Luther King, Jr. was the “opposite” of Malcolm X
Everybody knows that King believed in nonviolence, and Malcolm X was a dangerous radical, right?
Firstly, what King engaged was civil disobedience. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King describes his own beliefs regarding the difference between just laws and unjust laws:
“The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
This was hardly a meek position to take. King was openly advocating for the disregard of the laws of the United States if they were deemed unjust by the people.
Though his rhetoric reflected a distaste for violence, his tactics often included actively courting it. King even drew condemnation from Malcolm X for an event called The Children’s Crusade, in which he sent children and teenagers to a march where they were attacked by Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama.
King organized the march to dramatize the cruelty black Americans were up against. Malcolm disagreed, saying:
“Real men don’t put their children on the firing line.”
To paint a beatific picture of King while posing Malcolm X as his bloodthirsty contemporary misunderstands both men simultaneously, and negates the value of the spiritual journeys that led to their distinct political persuasions.
Lie #3: Martin Luther King, Jr. would be ashamed of protestors
As we’ve already discussed, King openly advocated for people to break the law if it was unjust, and though he is painted as a teddy bear, he was not. He drew harsher condemnation as time wore on for his stance on the Vietnam War, which some felt lacked patrio…oh, wait, sound familiar?
In Beyond Vietnam, he issues a scathing indictment of the inconsistency of harsh words for protestors and gentler words for much larger actors and perpetrators of violence:
“I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.“
The truth is that we don’t have to guess what a man who was arrested 29 times would think of a civil rights protest – we know.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of this nation until the day of bright justice emerges.”
We know what King was about because it’s what he devoted his entire life and enduring legacy to, a legacy many white Americans claim to be proud of. We know because he told us.
And if you’re revving up for another juicy weekend of yelling at football games and lying about MLK on social media, just remember: We know what you’re about, too, and for the same reason.