MLK Day — Walking with History

Today we celebrate one of the most consequential figures in U.S. history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The iconic Reverend King was born on January 15, 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, and was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, at the age of 39. For an idea on how recently Dr. King lived, remember that he was 7 years younger than Betty White, who’s death we mourned just a few weeks ago.

History is a mind-bending concept. The answers are there for us all, but the scope is so large that the more we try to learn, the more we recognize our own ignorance. So it is often easier to just stop and believe that we “get the gist”, we can list the Presidents of our lifetime, we know the Civil Rights movement happened, some people fought over something in the Civil War, everything else is just details, right?

Historical illiteracy is the silent plague that cripples progress, degenerates truth, and gives power to demagogues seeking to use the same historical tactics to exploit the minds of the well-intentioned. So today, I wanted to look at Martin Luther King Jr., and talk about how our perception of him has changed in the ~54 years since his death.

First, the crux of my piece: MLK Jr. enjoys an 89% approval rating across the country, according to a 2021 poll by YouGov. That’s from a combination of 67% of Americans with a “very positive” opinion, and 21% with a “somewhat positive” opinion.

That is a remarkable approval rating for any human being to have in society. We accept MLK as a non-controversial figure, someone who speaks for everyone’s views on racial equality. Who can’t get behind MLK’s famous lines from his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech?

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

MLK during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.

This speech was MLK at his most optimistic, and therefore his most likable. He called for then-drastic changes, such as respect for black Americans as fully equal, full legal citizenship rights, an end to police brutality, an end to segregation, and fulfillment of Black voting rights. But even those who opposed some of these measures could find solace in the end of the speech, when MLK laid bare his fundamental dream: a land where we are all equal, and where racism is a thing of the past. He overlays his dream with the imagery of the Lord’s love and American exceptionalism, at least in its foundational promise.

MLK ends his speech with a hope, a hope for what the celebration will look like when we reach fulfillment of his dream. “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last”, words that send shivers through your spine no matter how many times you listen to it. Our error is, this is where most American’s stop thinking about King. Despite King saying in this very same speech that “1963 is not an end, but a beginning”, most Americans believe in a Civil Rights movement that saw it’s fulfillment in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, ending racial disparity and resulting in a racially equal world today. That is the historical illiteracy that unites Americans behind MLK, and the lie that allows anti-progress political leaders to quote MLK today, despite the fact that their entire message is antithetical to all that MLK fought for and believed in.

So let us go back to historic revisionism. The first time that MLK Day was broached as a national holiday was just 4 days after his death, with Rep. John Conyers introducing the motion in Congress. Congress ignored it. Under President Carter’s support in 1979 it finally came to a vote, 11 years after his death, but failed in the House by 5 votes. Finally, after years and years of marches and efforts, the House passed the bill in 1983. Despite delay from filibusters, including a 400 page document by Senator Jesse Helms accusing King once again of being a communist, the Senate overwhelmingly ratified the holiday. 18 years after his death, in 1986, MLK was finally installed as a federal holiday. It took longer for states to ratify, with only 17 states agreeing by the 1986 date above. The 1993 Super Bowl location was even moved by the NFL in protest of Arizona’s refusal to ratify the holiday. Finally, in the year 2000, only 21 years ago, the last state finally ratified MLK Jr. Day as a holiday.

(Coincidentally, this follows nearly the exact same timeline as our nation’s road to accepting interracial marriage. The 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, legalized interracial marriage federally, over 100 years after end of the Civil War. As a matter of point, the last state to remove bans on interracial marriage from their state constitution was Alabama, in the year 2000.)

So why did it take so long for MLK Day to be recognized? The simple answer is, the mirage of American acceptance of MLK we see today did not exist at any point in his lifetime. At no point during the Civil Rights Movement did a majority of American approve of Martin Luther King Jr., according to Gallup Polls at the time.

In 1963, following his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, MLK had an approval rating of 41%, compared to 37% unfavorable, and 22% “unsure”. By the 1966, MLK’s approval rating had dropped to only 1/3 of Americans, with only 12% having a “highly favorable” view of the reverend.

Why is this? What changed? Like all things in history, the answer is complicated, but quite simply MLK refused to let America be content with bare-minimum concessions. The same year that MLK gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, he wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while in prison for non-violent protest in Alabama. I encourage everyone to read the whole letter. In summary, King lays out his argument for non-violent protest, discusses the difference between just-laws and unjust-laws, rooted often in his Christian beliefs, but he is also unflinching in his critique of bad-faith leaders (especially in the church) and those who stood passively by while their fellow humans were being oppressed.

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Most striking to me, as a young man who read this for the first time in high school, was this:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Please read that paragraph again.

King became more and more unpopular over time as he demanded more. He had fought successfully for the end of legal segregation. He had fought successfully for the right to vote. But America’s tolerance for him waned when he continued to fight for black equality, an end to the poverty created by centuries of black oppression. As he lays out in this 1967 piece, MLK focused on the three evils, the “Evils of racism, the evils of poverty, and the evils of war.” MLK’s public stance against what is now almost universally recognized, the unjust motivations and actions in the Vietnam War, was very unpopular at the time. LBJ and MLK had worked together to create land-mark legislation in 1964 and 1965, and LBJ’s War on Poverty was fundamentally supported by MLK. The partnership between the two was one of the most important in U.S. history, but MLK’s conscience always eventually ruled out the option of staying silent to injustice.

So despite advice against it, in April 1967, King gave the Riverside Church speech in which he publicly denounced U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. “This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.”

The media almost universally turned on King, as well as Johnson, who was reported as saying “What is that goddamned n****r preacher doing to me? We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the war on poverty. What more does he want?” Johnson, in retaliation, finally signed off on the FBI’s desire to release smear-campaign materials about MLK, accusing him of having an affair and of communist sympathies.

At the same time, King’s other messages were beginning to discomfort more and more “white moderates” who had previously supported Civil Rights Acts. In 1967, King said “It didn’t cost the nation anything to integrate hotels and motels. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to guarantee the right to vote. Now we are in a period where it will cost the nation billions of dollars to get rid of poverty, to get rid of slums, to make quality integrated education a reality.”

“The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” (1967)

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country.” (1960)

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for radical racial equity, which he understood to include policies that end the huge racial disparity in wealth in our country. The net worth of a typical white family is 10x that of a black family, per the Brookings Institute. This disparity is increasing, and has even accelerated in the midst of the pandemic. This breakdown by the Washington Post includes multiple graphics and studies showing how economic racial disparity is as large today, if not larger, between races as it was in 1968.

MLK’s message was not the white-washed “We are united!” message that we often want to pretend it to be. MLK’s message for economic equality and action to actively end racial discrimination and disparity was radical, as proven by how people responded in his time. His children today continue to advocate for Black Lives Matter, ending the legislative filibuster, and a renewal of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder.

It is easy to pretend that if we had lived in the 1850’s, we would all have been abolitionists. It is easy to pretend that if we had lived in the 1950’s, we would all have supported King, Farmer, Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, even though contemporary polling and the events of the late 1960s-70s (which I will write about another time) show that the majority of Americans were eager to shut the door on real racial equality as quickly as they could.

Historical illiteracy allows us to live this fantasy, where we can idealize where we would have stood in history while mirroring the stances of those who opposed our heroes. MLK stood his whole life, he gave his life, for the ideas of racial equality, economic equality, and peace. If you condemn the modern-day children of his ideas, in Black Lives Matter, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the end of the legislative filibuster, and economic reform, where do you stand?




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Matt Davenport

Matt Davenport

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