A kinder, gentler Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dave Weigel uses some fascinating newly re-released Gallup data to remind us that, once upon a time, MLK was about as well-liked by white people as Farrakhan:
Why was King so unpopular in 1966? You could read Taylor Branch or Rick Perlstein, and it is Friday, so you might have the time. The short version: In 1965 and 1966, King started working on housing in northern states, starting in Chicago. The 1966 Gallup poll here was taken around the time of the disastrous Marquette Park march, which King credited for the ugliest crowd of counter-protesters he’d ever seen. (We can read some hyperbole into that if we like.) He was starting in on his anti-war activism. He had moved on from the causes of Southern integration and voting rights to the far more volcanic issues of housing and red-lining and economic redistribution — he became, fully, a man of the left.
King’s subsequent political sainthood has very little to do with his post-Nobel Prize activism. It’s left for guys like Cornel West to dig that up; to everyone else, King’s “dream” was some easily-appropriated stuff about color-blindness.
One of the most arresting parts of Perlstein’s Nixonland is the section of the book concerned with that infamous Chicago march by King and his followers. Many of the city’s whites (largely ethnic whites, people from Irish and Polish heritage) showered the protestors with invective. Some threw stones. At one point, Perlstein reproduces a letter one denizen wrote to her local paper (I believe; this is going from memory) calling King a modern-day, American Hitler. It wasn’t the first or only time such a sentiment—absurd in the extreme today—was hurled at the civil rights leader.
But obviously that’s not the man Martin Luther King, Jr. remains today in the public consciousness. And that’s certainly a good thing. But is it a good thing that, instead, MLK is often depicted as an almost lifeless caricature of shallow, simplistic benevolence? As has been the case for other once-controversial, retrospectively sanctified figures of change in America, like Abraham Lincoln or Tom Paine, some people who were once lightning rods of controversy become diluted with the passage of time into kindly spirits more than human beings.
More insidiously—and this is an inextricable part of the same process—is the implication that it’s ever been thus. Abraham Lincoln was unanimously elected; Martin Luther King, Jr. was always recognized as our martyr for love. What bothers me about this isn’t just that it’s a lie, but that it’s a narcissistic, self-directed lie. It’s a palliative that we use to assure ourselves that, yes, we are special, we are good. There was ugliness in the past, sure; but the good guys won out, and here today we stand, their heirs.
We become complacent, self-righteous, and hubristic in the extreme. We don’t wonder whether or not we have the capacity for wrong; we don’t think twice about whether to not we’ve the right to carve into stone our moral absolutes, and to bring them down from the mountaintop to the wayward flock below. We are the people of Lincoln and King, and our judgment is always true.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)