They Like Their Civil Rights Leaders Dead

Martin Luther King on Face the NationToday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday where we’re supposed to reflect on what King’s legacy means to our current America. Oh, there’s lots of reflection on social media and elsewhere. Unfortunately, for conservatives and some centrists, today is a day for selective “reflection.”

You’ll see a lot of quotes being shared about equality, unity, etc. But these quotes are used as a weapon to sully King’s legacy and use it as a weapon, basically as a troll. The thing is, these people would have hated King (or actually hated him if they were old enough). King was not a popular man just prior to his death, with the Harris poll putting his disapproval at 75%. Gallup found he was increasingly unpopular, going from 41/37 approval/disapproval in 1963 to 32/63 in 1966, the last time they measured his popularity. In a reflection of today’s “oh dear, don’t rock the boat” thinking by many towards civil rights protests, Gallup found that as the decade progressed, a huge majority of Americans believed that civil rights protests hurt Black people more than it helped.

As Jeanne Theoharis pointed out in Time, a large percentage of America disliked King, and the civil rights movement.

Lest we see this as Southerners skewing the national sample, in 1964—a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act—a New York Times poll found a majority (57%) of New Yorkers said the civil rights movement had gone too far. “While denying any deep-seated prejudice,” the Times reported, “a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites.” Fifty-four percent of those surveyed felt the movement was going “too fast.” Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt the Negro cause, and 80% opposed school pairings to promote school desegregation in New York City public schools.

Sound familiar? It should. Overly Celebrated Journalist Wolf Blitzer lectured that Black Lives Matters hurt Blacks by “not living up to King’s legacy.” After the Baltimore riots we had the George Floyd protests in 2022, and again the “not living up to Dr. King’s legacy” lectures started, despite protests being overwhelmingly peaceful and plenty of evidence that violence was instigated by counterprotesters or police (one could argue this is redundant).

But now, with King dead, his memory can be used by the very people he struggled against. With that in mind, here are some quotes to use in reply to your conservative aunt posting selective quotes of King’s and lamenting about how in the good old days, he “didn’t start no trouble like they do now.”

First, one for the filibuster-defenders dropping King quotes today.

“I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.

Next, one for the moderates.

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Then, about apathy, which is still a serious issue in America given we are pretty “what-evs” about our democracy falling apart.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

This isn’t one you’ll see on the Twitter thread of your local chamber of commerce.

“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”

Nor this one.

“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

Probably won’t have your racist-y aunt posting this one today, given it’s calling America deeply sick:

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”

If he were alive today, he would be gravely disappointed at what we are doing at the moment. One only has to look at what he said, and not the Starbucks Happy Talk quotes that are selected out of context, to see how true that is. But King is dead, and no longer a threat, so his quotes out of context make a convenient weapon. One imagines it’s only a matter of time before they do that to John Lewis.

The last word goes to two legendary American voices,  Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, singing this tribute to King during the 1969 Summer of Soul festival (it was one of his favorite songs).