Lionizing Dr. King

By | Monday, January 15, 2024 Leave a Comment
It shouldn't come as any great surprise that many people are quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. right now. Today is a national holiday honoring him, and many businesses are closed today.

One issue with citing Dr. King is, though, people are cherry picking quotes of his, as if all he did was make some pretty speeches about his dream of equality. He earned his reputation practicing civil disobedience. He was literally breaking the law on a frequent basis because he saw that the laws were unjust. He was beaten. He was jailed. J. Edgar Hoover worked for years to use every FBI resource available to discredit him at every opportunity. He was eventually assassinated. He was one of the most hated men in America in the year or two before he was murdered. A 1963 Gallup poll showed that 37% of Americans had a negative view of him; a number that increased each year as he became more prominent in his objecting to the status quo. The year before King died, Gallup polls showed 63% of Americans had a negative view of him!

America has never liked activists. Particularly those promoting racial equity. An easy way to see that is by looking at period editorial cartoons. A professional cartoonist, if they're to be successful, needs to have their finger on the pulse of the nation, so any cartoons they create speak to the current thinking about the day's events. I did a little searching and came up with the following cartoons, mostly from 1966-1968, that feature Dr. King. Most of those I found weren't particularly kind, but the three that appeared shortly after his death were respectful at least. (The one with the hand-writing was sent to King himself, and remains in his archives.)
Remember this if you think about quoting Dr. King. He challenged the status quo on a daily basis. He caused lots of problems for lots of people in high places. The riots that broke out in the week after his assassination helped convince President Johnson to sign The Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Those riots broke out while King was hugely unpopular. Nearly three-quarters of Americans had an unfavorable view of him, as I noted above -- and keep in mind that the US's Black population was around 11% at the time. Asians and Hispanics made up another 5% combined. Which suggests that only about 20% of white people didn't outright dislike him. (Not that they actually liked him, mind you, just that they didn't dislike him. I don't doubt many people, when asked, had no opinion because they had never even heard of him.) The riots were just among the few who did like him.

I don't doubt many people quoting Dr. King today are sincere, but I am equally certain many are not. Public figures like to pay lip service to the man, but often don't actually know anything about who he was or what he actually did. If you're able, go read Ho Che Anderson's excellent biography of Dr. King (which I reviewed here) and if you can't at least take a read through the Golden Legacy biography, which easily available online in many places, including my blog here. That will help put some of those Dr. King quotes in context. Then check out the actions of whoever you heard quoting him; are they actually working towards the same ends that Dr. King was, or are they working against the poor and working classes, against immigants and minorities, against unions and laborers, against homelessness and poverty..? Obviously, that's going to be different from person to person, but here in 2024, I'd be willing to bet that almost everyone in the news quoting Dr. King is working against everything he stood for.
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