Revisionist History



50 years ago today, April 4th 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was murdered in cold blood as he stood on a Memphis balcony.

50 years later there is a monument in Washington DC in his likeness, a federal holiday in his honor, and countless roads and highways named after him.

Every year like clockwork, when the third Monday of January rolls around, social media is saturated with posts or captions containing many of Dr King’s famous quotes:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

These quotes are great, they really are. But do these timeless bits of wisdom truly represent what Dr King was trying to tell us 50+ years ago?

In 1966, two-thirds of Americans were indifferent (4%) or opposed (63%) to Dr King’s antics according to Gallup polls. In 2011, 94% of Americans had a favorable opinion of MLK. What has caused the seemingly drastic improvement in society’s appreciation for Dr King? In part, the proliferation of quotes like the ones above. While they may be honest attempts at honoring Dr King (I think), these oversimplified quotes water down Dr King’s message to simply one of love and forgiveness. If you read his work further, you will find out that not only do these quotes simplify his message, oftentimes they miss the point all together.  

Dr King preached a sermon that was palatable to most, as long as the change he clamored for didn’t happen around them. For example, from 1963 to 1966, Dr King’s disapproval rating according to Gallup polls rose from 37% to 63%. The cause? Dr King’s involvement in Northern cities like Chicago. It was more than just Southern white people who did not support the fight for Civil Rights. In fact, the despicable reactions to peaceful protests in Chicago lead MLK to say, “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

Why was Dr King so threatening to so many, even without violence? He challenged the status quo. He challenged the fictional foundation of a nation that prided itself on rugged individualism and hard work. He reminded us that hatred of black people was not required for white Americans to support systems of oppression, only complacency. He reminded us that even those with the best of intentions could be guilty of allowing racism and prejudice to flourish. He called not just for peace, he called for radical reformation. 

In my viz I try to highlight the difference in MLK’s real message and the one we perpetuate today. I hope that in remembrance of this American hero, that we all take time today to think about what we can do to ensure a more equitable and just society like the one that Dr King himself envisioned 50 years ago. 

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