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Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

Americans didn’t like Martin Luther King, Jr. then—they still don’t like many of his ideas now

January 16, 2023

Today is a weird day. It is a much-warranted holiday, honoring one of this country’s most iconic figures. But that honoring is the weird part, especially coming from the types of people doing it. It’s hard not to feel a high level of cynicism.

Look at the folks who join in on the “celebration.”

Shapiro, for once, is right on something—that there are a number of pieces every year authenticly underscoring Dr. King’s message, making an effort to remind folks there was more to it than a dream that “little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

Let me throw one more quick one on there.

The reminder that Martin Luther King was not universally revered—not even close—when he was alive is the most salient note to me reflecting during a national holiday honoring his legacy.

This has been highlighted any number of places but here’s a quick quote from an article on today:

During the 1960s, King was a very divisive figure. The last Gallup poll to ask about his popularity during his lifetime, taken in 1966, found his unfavorable rating was 63%. This included 39% of Americans who gave him a -5 rating, on a scale with -5 being least favorable and +5 being most favorable.

King’s highly negative rating came when he had turned his attention from Southern de jure segregation toward de facto segregation in northern cities.

Oh, he was seen as more extremist, was more reviled once he took aim at supposedly more progressive places and people? Wild.

Today is a day we hear a lot about Dr. King’s words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on “white moderates,” and they are important words—accurate ones.

In light of this, my quick hit would be to challenge folks to consider what progressive social, economic and racial issues they find themselves in the 60 percent majority on, with supposed “radical leftists” comprising the other contingent of 40 percent.

In many cases, the numbers may not be as lopsided. Hell, there are times when the 40 percent backs the status quo but it is the status quo—so it stays.

Where are you on funding criminalization and incarceration vs. rehabilitation and social services? On sweeping encampments vs. housing as a human right? On healthcare for all vs. our free-market system? On more fair zoning, allowing folks of any socioeconomic status to live near where they work? On a transportation system that enables people to traverse their communities more affordably and efficiently?

Where would Dr. King be?

It was never about just segregation and integration.

Here is Dr. King, as relayed by Harry Belafonte, from a conversation they had at the latter’s house during their last meeting (h/t to Cindy Noir for bringing it to my attention).

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” […]

“I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,” he [said]. “And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

On this front, the house is still burning. That is clear.

But we can fight the fire.

We must be concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. We can ensure the underclass is given justice and opportunity.

This is the legacy of Dr. King.

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