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You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone: MLK

Dr. Martin Luther King. In the 21st century, we look back to him as a monument to public speech and non-violent protest. It seems to me that he is firmly cemented as a legend in American history. So from our present perspective, with Dr. King being viewed as an icon for all of our lives, the fact has been easily lost that he was not positively viewed in the public eye until his death.

In this study by Gallup, you can see that Dr. King was less than revered in the years before his death, falling out of  public favor in the years immediately before his assassination.

Ignoring the modern “martyr” representation of Dr. King, its not hard to imagine why he was unfavorably viewed in the years before his death. For his time, he was a radical. He actively fought every racial norm held in place at the time. Revolutionary movements are almost never favorably viewed by the majority of people. Otherwise, its no longer revolutionary.

King was an established enemy to the white ruling class of the time. He hit them hard and hit them where it hurt. He went after their power. By working with the Montgomery Improvement Association to financially cripple the city bus system, by organizing and mobilizing voters, by inspiring people to action, he (far from single-handedly) made people uncomfortable and receptive to bargaining.

It wasn’t King’s goal to be liked. He was after change.

And when you spend your entire professional life making white people uncomfortable, you’re not likely to be very popular. But as with many public figures, his death made his life more powerful. In the decades following his assassination, his life became romanticized, parts of his life perused and chosen for distribution via mass media and to be taught from watered-down textbooks.

They say the winners write the history books. Well his story was written by, in his case, the losers. And his image was watered-down, being portrayed as the poster child for politeness and passivity, a more palatable figure for modern America. Thus, he has become a kind, happy, impossible-to-dislike man. A man who’s true message and intent was eventually lost to mainstream media and education.

Happy Dr. Martin Luther King Day.

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