Today, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. abound, mostly misused to suit the purpose of the person citing him. To hear people tell it now, Martin is universally loved and has always been so. People forget that in a 1967 poll, King was among the most hated men in America, with a 75 percent negative approval rating.
After his assassination in 1968, one-third of the American people felt King "brought it on himself."
In addition to the parts of his "I Have A Dream" speech, people like to quote about judging people by their character. Martin was saying things a lot of people didn't want to hear. He suggested changes in America's politics and economics, and when he turned against the Vietnam War, he got in the cross hairs of the military-industrial complex.
Related: Why I Will Never, Ever Work on MLK Day
“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war," said Dr. King in a speech at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. "This way of settling differences is not just. 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.”
Today, Martin Luther King Jr. is allegedly loved universally, but some of the same people that praise him now hated him at the time of his death. You'll have difficulty finding their quotes; they've been whitewashed. Four days after Martin's death, Rep. John Conyers submitted a bill to the House of Representatives to make MLK Day a federal holiday. Conyers's bill failed that year—and for 14 consecutive years—because America wasn't ready yet. The bill finally passed the House in 1983 by a vote of 338-90. Among the no votes were John McCain and the entire Arizona legislation. Steve Scalise, currently serving as the Republican Majority Leader, voted against MLK Day. In Louisiana, he opposed MLK Day as late as 2004. Scalise also opposed a resolution from Louisiana apologizing for slavery.
Former Senator Jesse Helms tried to filibuster the MLK Day bill from passing. When that failed, he tried to get the FBI to release their files on Martin to be read in the Senate. We wanted to characterize Dr. King as a Communist and womanizer. His efforts were worthwhile, as were those of the Republican presidents that followed (Nixon, Bush Sr., Bush Jr., and Trump). His strategy gained him an electoral victory in a North Carolina Senate race he'd been predicted to lose beforehand.
Ronald Reagan was initially opposed to an MLK Day, but when he signed it into law, he used the opportunity to declare the end of American racism.
“Had he lived, the man we honor on this day would be only 54 years old. He cannot be with us," said President Reagan in a radio announcement. "But today in Atlanta, Vice President Bush is attending a gathering honoring his 83-year-old father who did so much to start his son on the road to achievement and martyrdom."
He continued: "In honoring them both, we should look to the future as well as the past. Yes, we should be proud of the progress we’ve made. But we also must face the fact that 15 years after Martin Luther King’s death, traces of bigotry and injustice still remain."
"So, let the anniversary of this courageous American’s birth be for us both a time of thanksgiving and a time of renewal," Reagan added. "Let us be grateful for the providence that sends among us men and women with the courage and vision to stand peacefully but unyieldingly for what is right. But let us also make this a time when we rededicate ourselves, young and old, black and white to carry on the work of justice and to totally reject the words and actions of hate embodied in groups like the Ku Klux Klan."
Reagan went on to misuse MLK's words every chance he got to weaken civil rights legislation, a tactic employed by the Republican Party ever since.
Without mentioning King by name, eight white Birmingham Pastors (C.C.J Carpenter, Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton J. Grafman, Harlon B. Harmon, George M. Murray, Edward V. Ramage, and Earl Stallings) urged Black people not to support the "outsider" stirring up unrest. Their Birmingham newspaper ad prompted Dr. King's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
"We commend the community as a whole and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled," said the pastors. "We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence."
They added: "We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense."
Despite what you hear today, Martin Luther King Jr. was not beloved during his lifetime. There were heated arguments involving prominent people who used his name in vain. I attempted every search methodology I could think of to produce the quotes of people who now proclaim love for Martin. I consider myself a good researcher—if I have a hint of what I'm looking for, I can generally find it, but in this case, I'm stymied. I can see the no votes or general attitudes, but the actual words are seemingly wiped clean from history. Why is that?
This post originally appeared on Medium and has been edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium.
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