Martin Luther King Jr.

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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.
—Dr. King, 1963. This quote is now engraved on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.[1]

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929—1968) was an American Baptist minister, activist, and socialist who was at the forefront of the United States civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. He led protest actions and marches focusing on voting rights, desegregation, labor rights, and economic justice. His activism emphasized nonviolence and civil disobedience. Segregationist authorities in state and local governments vehemently opposed Dr. King, and they often met his protests with violence. Dr. King was repeatedly imprisoned.

Dr. King gained national attention when he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership ConferenceWikipedia (SCLC). His most famous moment was his "I Have a Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1963. He was essential in the political movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts in 1965. From there, he expanded his focus to advocate against poverty, capitalism, and the ongoing Vietnam War. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968.[2]

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered Dr. King a dangerous radical and communist sympathizer, and they made him a target of the infamous COINTELPRO starting in 1963. They spied on him, secretly recorded him in his personal life, and on at least one occasion sent him a letter urging him to commit suicide.[3] In 1968, Dr. King planned a second mass protest in Washington DC to be called the Poor People's Campaign, but he was assassinated before he could see these plans come to fruition. His sudden murder prompted intense anger from African-Americans, leading to intense riots in many US cities.[note 1]

His birthday, 15 January, is now honored in the United States as Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday. In the US Congress, 90 US Representatives and 22 US Senators voted against the measure to establish the holiday.[4] Among the Senators who voted against it were John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Richard Shelby, and Chuck Grassley.Wikipedia Even after the holiday became official in 1983, multiple states continue to tie it into a "King-Lee" Day that lumps in Dr. King with Confederate general Robert E. Lee.[5][note 2] Dr. King's legacy is also diluted by the insistence of US politicians on downplaying his commitment to economic justice and portraying him as a symbol of racial harmony rather than an ongoing struggle for equality. Even the FBI now makes generic comments on the holiday, making no acknowledgement of the years they spent terrorizing him.[6]

Life of a King[edit]

Dr. King's boyhood home in Atlanta.

Early experiences with racism[edit]

Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar... We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime.
—Excerpt from Martin Luther King's winning speech at an oratorical contest in 1944.[7] On the way home from this honor, King had to surrender his bus seat to a white man.

Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. When Dr. King was three, he made friends white a white boy, and the two would play together.[8] Sadly, the two entered separate schools at age six as mandated by the Jim Crow laws, and the boy's father demanded that the boys cease all contact. When King asked his parents how this could be, they sat him down to hold the tough talk of how things were for black people in the United States. From that point, King became aware and resentful of the system of segregation and began to ask himself, "How could I love a race of people who hated me?"[8] In his autobiography, Dr. King relates more stories of racist oppression, from being ordered to move to the back of a shoe store to seeing his father called a "boy" by a police officer. In both of these occasions, King remembered most of all how his father fought back by voicing his disapproval and refusing to accept the status quo.[8]

At age eight, King was on the end of racism himself when a white woman randomly slapped him at a public pool and accused him of being the "nigger that stepped on my foot".[8] In 1939, King had to sing in his church choir in a slave costume in front of an all-white audience.[9]

When King was 14 years old, he won an oratorical contest on a school trip but was still forced out of his seat on the bus to make way for some random white people on the way home.[8] During his years in junior high school and then beyond, King became known for his speaking ability and way with words. As he grew older, King witnessed more instances of police violence, beatings by the Ku Klux Klan, and walked past the sites of lynchings.

At Morehouse College[edit]

Graves Hall at Morehouse College.
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.
—Excerpt from Martin Luther King's "The Purpose of Education", published in Morehouse's campus newspaper in 1947.[10]

Recognized as a pretty smart cookie, King entered the prestigious all-black Morehouse College as an early-admission student in 1944. Before he began university education, he went on a work trip to Connecticut and got to experience life without segregation for the first time. In his autobiography, King wrote his primary takeaway from his time in the North: "It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta."[8]

King's worldview was shaped by his time at Morehouse. Since the college did not rely on state funds, it could teach what it wanted and encourage its students to directly confront the reality of race in America. The college president, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, took a personal interest in the bright student's developing belief system and introduced him to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and his teachings on nonviolent protest.[11] Professor Samuel W. Williams had King read Henry David Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience", a work which transfixed King and convinced him that moral men had the ability and obligation to resist evil.[12]

Love and later education[edit]

During his time at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King fell in love with a white woman named Betty. Tragically, it wasn't able to be, as King's friends and society at large reminded him that an interracial relationship would be fraught with trouble and in most places a marriage wouldn't be possible.[13] King also was elected president of the student body at Crozer.[14]

King then studied at Boston University and finally gained his "Dr." However, his doctoral thesis was later revealed to have several segments plagiarized from other sources, a fact which has caused much controversy.[15] While plagiarism is usually a death blow, it's quite possible King was simply being patronized by his liberal, white professors in a way he hadn't been at Morehouse.[16] King's tendency to rely on familiar rhetoric and ideas also served him far better in sermons and speeches, as he was able to use this to appeal to broad audiences. Dr. King was ultimately a better activist than an academic.

At Boston, King met his future wife, Coretta Scott. They married in 1953, and Coretta Scott assisted him in his future activism.[17]

Civil rights activism[edit]

Dr. King and Rosa Parks in 1955.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott[edit]

If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong... If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water.
—Transcript of Dr. King's speech to the Holt Street Baptist Church.[18]

In 1954, Dr. King began his first full-time pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.[19] Dr. King immediately reformed how things were done, first insisting that every churchmember join the NAACP and become a registered voter.[19] Becoming politically active in the city of Montgomery put Dr. King square in the middle of the brewing storm over that city's Jim Crow laws.

On 1 December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a NAACP Youth Council advisor, was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man. Parks had previously been active in defying unjust Alabama state laws by encouraging black students to check out books from whites-only libraries.[20] Two similar arrests had happened recently, but Dr. King was able to use Rosa Parks' position as a well-known and respected member of the Black community as a catalyst to call for firm action. Dr. King teamed up with the NAACP and called for a boycott of the bus system on 5 December, successfully convincing 90% of the city's Black population to stay off the buses.[21] This proved so successful that the city's black leaders resolved to keep the boycott going. On 8 December, the boycott organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), issued its formal list of demands. These were: courteous treatment by bus operators; first-come, first-served seating for all, with blacks seating from the rear and whites from the front; and black bus operators on predominately black routes.[21] The city government refused, and an unknown attacker bombed Dr. King's home in January, 1956.[22]

On 21 February, the State of Alabama indicted Dr. King under a 1921 statute criminalizing any conspiracy to interrupt lawful business. Judge Eugene W. Carter found King guilty and fined him $500 plus an additional $500 for court costs (this was a lot of fucking money back then), and Dr. King's appeal was rejected.[23] King ultimately had to pay the fine, but these court cases elevated the affair into the national spotlight. After 385 days,[24] the boycott finally ended when a United States District Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that declared Montgomery's bus segregation laws to be unconstitutional, citing the precedent established in Brown v. Board of Education.[25]

After their experiences with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, an organization which Dr. King would lead until his death.

Atlanta sit-ins and arrest[edit]

Dr. King arrested by Atlanta police for taking part in a sit-in at Rich's.

In 1959, Dr. King moved back to his hometown of Atlanta. Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver was openly hostile to this news, accusing Dr. King of inciting crime waves and vowing to keep him under constant surveillance by law enforcement.[26] Vandiver became Dr. King's primary political foe during his time in Georgia.

In March 1960, student activists from Atlanta's Black colleges began organizing a sit-in campaign to challenge Atlanta's segregated food establishments.[27] This was part of a broader movement which had begun in North Carolina and attracted more protesters across the South.

The goal of a sit-in was to deny the business money. Black activists would sit at the food counter and refuse to leave, and the business would refuse to serve them. This deadlock would, in theory, prevent profitable business unless the eateries agreed to serve Black customers. Unfortunately, the tactic was extremely dangerous. Enraged white business-owners and customers would react by heckling the protesters, beating them, or simply calling the cops to arrest them for causing a public disturbance.[28]

Sit-ins were a nonviolent strategy that aligned perfectly with Dr. King's goals and methods, so he embraced the movement wholeheartedly. By October, the student activists had convinced Dr. King to participate personally in a sit-in at Rich's, an Atlanta department store. Police arrested King and 300 students, and a judge sentenced Dr. King to six months of hard labor.[29] This was, however, in the late days of the 1960 presidential campaign that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Looking for a way to get a last-minute boost in the polls, JFK and his brother, Robert, called both Governor Vandiver and the judge to petition for Dr. King's release.[30] This quickly went public, and Kennedy massively won the black vote in November, putting him over Nixon in a narrow victory.

Defeated in Albany (and arrested again)[edit]

Dr. King and other Black activists confront Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett.

In November 1961, two Black student activists ventured into the whites-only section of a bus station in Albany, Georgia. They were, of course, arrested, and further encroachments into the segregated bus station resulted in yet more arrests. When students protested in front of Albany city hall, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had hundreds of them arrested.[31] Hoping to keep up the pressure on the city, student leaders called on Dr. King to get involved. He did so, and he was promptly arrested as well.

While Albany was the most confrontational protest action to date, it was also to be a setback for Dr. King's movement. Dr. King hoped to put stress on Albany by filling its jails with more and more protesters, but Pritchett simply had the people he jailed sent to other counties.[32] Pritchett also firmly ordered his officers to refrain from brutality during arrests (as long as there were cameras and witnesses), thus limiting public outrage.

In July 1962, King was brought up on charges of protesting without a permit, and a court ordered him to $178 or serve 45 days in jail.[33] Dr. King picked prison, as he had observed that protests intensified the last time he was jailed, but Pritchett arranged for the fine to be paid by other means and then ordered Dr. King and other SCLC leaders released.[34] Fellow SCLC leader Ralph Abernathy later joked, "I’ve been thrown out of lots of places in my day, but never before have I been thrown out of jail."[33]

On 10 August, Dr. King left Albany after effectively acknowledging defeat. Defeat, however, is a powerful teacher, and Dr. King was an astute student. As Dr. King himself noted, "The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing."[33] Dr. King also learned that efforts to fill local jails weren't enough. Instead, he and his followers needed direct action that would attract media attention and public sympathy. And he also realized that the fastest way to win that public sympathy was by being publicly subjected to violence while having done nothing to incite it.[31] The brutality of white supremacy needed to be visually contrasted with the moral fortitude and discipline of Dr. King and his followers if the American public were to get the message.

The Birmingham Campaign (and arrested yet again)[edit]

A black teen attacked by a police dog. This image was on the front page of the next day's New York Times.[35]
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is... 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 can't agree with your methods of direct action" who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
—Excerpt from Dr. King's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."[36]

In 1963, Dr. King and the SCLC turned their attention to Birmingham, Alabama, home of one of the nation's most draconian segregation regimes. Dr. King called Birmingham "the most segregated city in America" and he believed that a violent response to his movement would be guaranteed.[31] Once images of police brutality against King's nonviolent protesters were published, public response would hopefully add great strength to the Civil Rights Movement. This was a grim calculation, but it was a strategy based upon Dr. King's experiences in Albany.[31]

Dr. King's campaign was to focus on the city's segregated businesses, and it especially focused on trying to cut into Easter revenues.[37] A boycott of downtown Birmingham would be combined with marches on city hall, sit-ins, and kneel-ins at local churches. Dr. King also prepared by carefully instructing Black citizens on the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence.

The protest action began on 3 April, and on 10 April the city of Birmingham sought and got a court injunction against the protests. Dr. King decided to violate the order, but there were serious fears among the SCLC that subjecting themselves to arrest would be a dangerous ploy since their bail funds were depleted.[37] If Dr. King were to go to jail, he could be there for a long, long time.

Indeed, on 12 April, Birmingham police arrested Dr. King and placed him in solitary confinement. The day of his arrest, eight Birmingham clergy members published a criticism of Dr. King's protest campaign, calling it "unwise and untimely" and appealing "to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense".[38] Dr. King responded to these allegations by penning the famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", explaining that the dehumanization of segregation could not be tolerated any longer and lambasting the [[Respectability politics|calls to fall in line and cease direct action]7. Dr. King was later released after his wife Coretta contacted President Kennedy.[37]

Meanwhile, SCLC organizer James Bevel decided to start using Black students in the campaign. On 3 May, hundreds of students protested in downtown Birmingham, and Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered police and fire crews to use force to halt them. Exactly as Dr. King hoped, horrific images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, beaten by police officers, and mauled by police dogs filled newspapers and television broadcasts.[37] Amid public disapproval and growing pressure from the Kennedy administration, Birmingham's business leaders and city government finally accepted a negotiated settlement for gradual desegregation.[31]

The March on Washington[edit]

Dr. King greets marchers from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The year 1963 marked the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The tragedy of the occasion was that after a hundred years, Black Americans still struggled with systemic disenfranchisement, unemployment, and a deliberate deprivation of education. To mark the occasion and push for true justice, the SCLC teamed with the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) for a massive protest in Washington DC for civil rights and equal access to employment.[39]

Upon hearing of these plans, President Kennedy initially opposed them out of fear that such a protest would complicate his efforts to see a Civil Rights Act pass through a Congress divided between socially liberal Northern and socially conservative Southern Democrats.[40] He did come around to the idea, though, and he had proxies organize further support for the protest as well as enlisting the help of Walter ReutherWikipedia, the president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).[41] The movement grew even more with the backing of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America.[39] Even Malcolm X, though skeptical of the idea, attended as well.

On 28 August, 260,000 people from across the US gathered in the National Mall before the Lincoln Memorial.[42] It was there that Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, going on for 16 minutes when he had been slated for 4 (not that anyone cared).[42] This was to be, and still is, the most iconic speech in American history.

John LewisWikipedia, a future US Representative, also spoke at the event.[43] As did Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress (who had previously protested against Hitler),[44] Walter Reuther of the UAW, and Whitney Young of the National Urban League.[45]

Not everything was just uplifting rhetoric. A pamphlet advertising the March on Washington, endorsed by Dr. King, included a list of ten demands for policy changes:[46]

1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress—without compromise or filibuster—to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.
2. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment—reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised.
5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constiutional right is violated.
7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

The shitty thing is, of course, that the people of the United States still don't have some of these and the same politicians who oppose these policies have the gall to do so while singing Dr. King's praises.

Dangerous moments in St. Augustine[edit]

Dr. King comforts a fearful child protester in hostile St. Augustine.
All semblance of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine.
—Dr. King statement upon the arrest of the St. Augustine Four.[47]

In late 1963, as St. Augustine was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary, the city disgraced itself as white supremacists attacked civil rights protesters who had been inspired by Dr. King's actions. Dr. Robert Hayling, a dentist who organized the movement, had endured an attack on his home as Ku Klux Klan members fired rifle shots into his home, killing his dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife.[48] Black families had their homes torched and their cars firebombed. At a "wade-in" where Black protesters swam at an all-white beach, white counter-protesters carrying Confederate flags attacked them and turned a peaceful affair into a protest.[48]

In July 1963, police arrested peaceful Black students at a sit-in and would only agree to release them if they promised to never protest again.[47] Only four refused the bargain, and their bravery won them and the movement national attention. When Dr. King arrived at the city, the house the SCLC rented for him was torn apart by gunfire; Dr. King was thankfully not there.[49] Soon after, a Grand Jury called on Dr. King and SCLC to leave the city because they were disrupting "racial harmony".[49] Meanwhile, a white mob seized Dr. Hayling and several other NAACP members and beat them with chains; Dr. Hayling and the other black men were then arrested and convicted on false charges.[50]

Dr. King was also arrested again in St. Augustine for visiting the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge Hotel and Restaurant; while in jail he contacted his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner in New Jersey for assistance.[50] Dresner and 16 other Jewish rabbis arrived and were promptly arrested, the event becoming the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in US history.[51] Also at Monson Lodge, Black and white protesters jumped into the whites-only pool and were attacked with acid by the manager.[50]

After winning some court victories, the SCLC left St. Augustine in July 1964. Shortly after, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, invalidating the city's segregation ordinances. However, violence in the city continued, and picketing by the KKK kept many businesses segregated for a long time thereafter.[49]

Was he a conservative or establishment liberal?[edit]

Dr. King's mugshot after being arrested for protesting in Birmingham.
Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.
—Mignon McLaughlin

Occasionally, present day conservatives as well as conventional liberals attempt to portray MLK as one of their own, or as a "reasonable" fellow, within the context of invoking him to bolster the perceived legitimacy and power of their position. The historical record does not attest to this at all.

Doctor King...

  • Supported a higher minimum wage.
  • Called for compensation for historic wrongs against blacks.
  • Considered the Vietnam War an attempt to create a US colony,[52] and called the US "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
  • Was affiliated with the very liberal Highlander Folk School.[53] In fact, it was after he first listened to that Pinko Commie scumbag Pete Seeger sing the song that he said, on a ride back from a speech at the school, "Gee, that song Seeger was singing, 'We Shall Overcome,' sure has a nice ring."[54]
  • Organized a campaign for the rights of poor people, including calls for more federal money to be given to the impoverished of all races.
  • Went to Memphis (where he was assassinated) to support black sanitation workers on strike there.
  • Called himself a socialist in private on several occasions: "I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,"[55] and "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,"[56] while criticizing the "strangulating totalitarianism" prescribed by Marx.[57][58]
Dr. King speaking at an anti-Vietnam War rally.
  • Was close associates with a communist.Wikipedia While largely hidden from history due to politics, communists were very much active in the civil rights movement and helping protect it during its infancy.Wikipedia But once the US got its collective brains out of its anus and realized that racism was a serious embarrassment, the red had to be scrubbed off, and America was always at war with Eastasia for equal rights.
  • Bayard Rustin,Wikipedia who taught King everything he knew about Gandhi and non-violence, was openly gay and had been arrested for public indecency with another man (meaning he was doing the nasty in a parked car when the cops found him and hauled him off to jail). Members of Congress tried to use this affiliation to smear King as a two-timing homo, but King merely asked Rustin to stay away from the limelight when things got heavy. In the end, civil rights activist Asa Phillip Randolph and Rustin coordinated and organized the entire March on Washington, up to and including the "I Have A Dream" speech, proving that the LGBTQ community will always throw the best and most successful parties in American history.

He was actually a very radical socialist for his time.[59] Most moderates like to overlook the fact that he openly condemned them in Letter from Birmingham Jail[60] and use him as a rhetorical bludgeon against black people who are being too "uppity" and doing things that disrupt the status quo.

Relations with Democrats and Republicans[edit]

Dr. King with President Johnson.

King was acutely aware of the divisions within the Democratic Party. Half of the sitting Democrats from the South were old-time asshole Dixiecrats who had rallied around Strom Thurmond when he walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention after the party approved a desegregation plank; King knew firsthand, from fighting George Wallace's regime in Alabama, that segregationists retained strong influence within the party. He was vocally critical of liberal Democrats' incremental approach to civil rights.

Even when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson started pushing civil rights, King had a contentious relationship with both men, feeling (not unreasonably) that they balanced idealism with political expediency. He was especially critical of Kennedy, finding his rhetoric didn't match his actions.[61] He fared better with Johnson, closely assisting his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. He wrote that "I do not doubt that the President is approaching the solution with sincerity, realism and, thus far, with wisdom" and reportedly wept when Johnson announced the Voting Rights Act from Congress.[62] However, King's disapproval of Vietnam caused a rift between him and LBJ.[63]

King also occasionally flirted with the GOP.[64] He was frustrated with Dwight Eisenhower's reluctance to press for desegregation or meet with civil rights leaders, though he did praise Ike's sending troops to Little Rock.[65] He befriended New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who paid King's medical bills, donated large amounts of money to SCLC, and helped bail its members out of jail. King liked Rocky enough to invite the Governor to speak at his church in Atlanta.[66] Shortly before his death, King commented that he preferred Rockefeller or Michigan Governor George Romney over any Democrat in the 1968 election.[67]

Nonetheless, King violently denounced Barry Goldwater's 1964 candidacy as "a threat to freedom" for opposing civil rights, calling his position "morally indefensible and socially suicidal."[68] King understood that Goldwater and later Richard Nixon were preparing their Southern Strategy, wherein, after generations of suckling the Democratic Party's teat, Dixie would start voting Republican and become the strongest supporter of Lincoln's party. The moderate Republicans that King respected were effectively being written out of the GOP. The loud ker-thump heard around America in 1968 when Nixon won was the seismic effect of all the Confederate soldiers and vets doing back-flips in their graves.

The gist of the argument is that MLK was far more of an independent than a supporter of either party, both of which he considered responsible for the turmoil of his time. He was willing to work with any politician who showed a genuine interest in civil rights, regardless of their affiliation, and equally willing to criticize their failures.

King and the U.S. government[edit]

In an attempt to detract from his achievements, the United States government conducted a prolonged campaign intended to undermine King's power and reputation; they tried to label him as a communist sympathizer, and to discredit him by revealing him to be "amoral" in his personal relationships.


President John F. Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover authorized a wiretap on Dr. King's phones in 1962 and possibly longer. The FBI bugged his home, his office, and hotel rooms in the cities he traveled to. The taps were part of an attempt to frame Stanley Levison, a lawyer King had ties to, as a communist. King adamantly denied that he or anyone in the freedom movement were communists. The taps continued with little to no legal authorization, years beyond the original "search and explore for a month" that Kennedy authorized. King made several public comments during this surveillance, arguing that Hoover's goal had little to do with uprooting communists but was simply an attack on King's own status meant to give Hoover cover with the Southern political machine. The FBI's own words give hint to what their goal was: "[King is] the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."


The American public, the church organizations that have been helping — Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are — an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
The FBI An "anonymous letter"[69]

Unable to prove he was a commie, the US government leaked information on his private life that suggested, if not proved, that he had had several sexual relationships outside of his marriage. In political games no different than those played today, Lyndon Johnson called King a "hypocritical preacher," LBJ's personal life notwithstanding. Since his death, more and more speculation and scrutiny into King's life has shown that he had several extramarital affairs.

Such exemplars of moral enlightenment as the virulently racist Senator Jesse Helms and other Republican senators fought against the national Martin Luther King holiday by raving about extramarital affairs and King's association with reds.[70] Nevermind that many of our venerated founding fathers were slave-owners, and one of them, the U.S.'s third president, repeatedly impregnated a black woman he owned.

In studying real conspiracies, Thomas Burnett[71] and Nick Kotz demonstrated a direct plot against King's reputation. Evidence from wiretaps was distributed not only to high ranking government officials but friendly reporters, who then sent King anonymous letters threatening to expose him by going public.

Police incompetence[edit]

In a final blow to decency, there is now evidence that the FBI was watching King through carved peepholes in the window coverings of the hotel he was staying at, the night he was assassinated. An undercover FBI agent was the first on the scene. No APB was issued for Dr. King's killer. This has led to speculation that the FBI was actually involved.[72]

Whitewashing MLK[edit]

The Poor People's Campaign, a protest campaign organized by Dr. King for economic justice.

Every January on Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., conservatives and some liberals ooze unctuously that King supported whatever status quo the (usually) white person invokes. The radical black revolutionary that was King is turned into a plastic icon who would, don'tcha know, be horrified by the left-wing activists of today.[73] King's "vehement anti-war advocacy is ignored when commemorating his life (just as his economic views are)."[74] What the public gets instead is a sanitized distortion:

Many are taught a simplified version of King's life, focusing on only one of the three dimensions that defined him. During the Vietnam speech that turned the establishment against him, King railed against the “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”[75]

But even still, the ongoing movement for King's first of three causes — racial equality — have to contend with the same hate-filled arguments and attacks that King was subjected to.[76]

Back then, the white establishment called on "decent Negros" to get "King off their backs".[77] Today, black activists are forced to endure the same patronizing twaddle about their tactics. They are, however, reclaiming King's actual legacy.[78] King not only accepted the accusation that he was "an agitator" but embraced it. To reclaim King, then, is to be an agitator.[79]

Repeatedly, King called on the U.S. to "see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves". This, as in King's time, the political establishment is allergic to; it will get one called a "terrorist apologist" now, just as then King was labeled a "commie" and one who "whitewashed Hanoi".[80] Oh, and let's not forget "anti-American"; King was called that, as are many who hold similar views today to hear establishment conservatives and liberals tell it. Additionally, the Gamergate and anti-Muslim contingents have decided that those in the tradition of King are "regressive leftists".[81]

When in 1967 King delivered his Riverside Church speech declaring America to be "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and denouncing napalm bombings in Vietnam, 168 U.S. newspapers denounced him.[82]

Moreover, and as noted above, King was a democratic socialist. When courting his future wife he wrote in a letter to her:

I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems, it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.[83]

The country may finally be catching up with King on the economics front. But many still are tarred with all the same vicious demonization that King had to endure.

MLK and LGBTQ+ rights[edit]

King's record on LGBTQ+ rights is an interesting microcosm in how conservatives and progressives have managed to fit King's lives into their worldview. During his life, King's record on gay rights was mixed, telling a gay kid that he should see a psychiatrist to "fix his problem".[84] While in the present day, this can easily be read as a case of blatant homophobia, King's stance was notably progressive for the time, given that during his time most courts ended up outlawing homosexuality. As King died before the Stonewall riotsWikipedia and the LGBT rights movement would take off, one cannot conclude what King's stance would have been.

This however has not stopped both his wife, Coretta Scott King, and his youngest daughter, Bernice Albertine King, from ascribing a stance to the late King. His wife, who would end up becoming an early supporter of the LGBTQ+ rights movement ended up citing King's epithets about racial equality as a reason to support LGBTQ+ rights.[85] On the complete contrary, his daughter would end up as an ordained minister and has cited the late MLK's stance as her reason for opposing LGBTQ+ rights.[86]

The main thing that can be concluded from this is that no matter what King's stance might have been on a topic in life, someone will try to use a theoretical version of him to try to bolster their own position.

Inverse stopped clock[edit]

Parts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Doctorate thesis were taken from other researchers and journals, as a group of researchers in Boston University found. They opted not to strip him of his Ph. D., but his dissertation today contains a note that substantial portions of it were lifted without proper attribution. He also engaged in extensive plagiarism for several of his undergraduate papers as well.[87] Despite this, it's little more than a tiny blemish on an otherwise remarkable legacy. Additionally, claims that he plagiarized his I Have A Dream speech are... strained, to be as charitable as possible, and are far more often made in manifestly bad faith.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Quotations. National Parks Service.
  2. The day that Martin Luther King Jr. died, Constitution Center
  3. Read the letter the FBI sent MLK to try to convince him to kill himself. Vox.
  4. Lawmakers reflect on MLK Day ‘no’ votes. The Hill.
  5. “King-Lee Day” and other ways states bend MLK’s legacy. Vox.
  6. FBI, which spied on MLK, blasted after Twitter tribute to civil rights icon. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
  7. "The Negro and the Constitution". King, Martin Luther, Jr.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Chapter 1: Early Years Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.
  9. Katznelson, Ira (2005). When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. WW Norton & Co. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-05213-3.
  10. "The Purpose of Education". King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Morehouse College).
  11. King at Morehouse. Morehouse College.
  12. Chapter 2: Morehouse College. Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.
  13. ‘We Were Madly, Madly in Love’: The Untold Story of MLK’s White Girlfriend. Politico.
  14. Frady, Marshall (2002). Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-303648-7.p. 20–22
  15. Is This Viral List of 'Four Things You Didn't Know About Martin Luther King, Jr.' True? Snopes.
  16. On Martin Luther King's Plagiarism... History News Network.
  17. Coretta Scott King.
  18. MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church. King, Martin Luther, Jr.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Montgomery, Alabama). Stanford University.
  20. Parks, Rosa. Stanford University.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Stanford University.
  22. Home Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bombed On This Day In 1956. NewsOne.
  23. State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., Nos. 7399 and 9593. Stanford University.
  24. McMahon, Thomas F. (2004). Ethical Leadership Through Transforming Justice. University Press of America. p. 25. ISBN 0-7618-2908-3.
  25. Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903. Stanford University.
  26. Vandiver, Samuel Ernest, Jr. Stanford University.
  27. Atlanta Sit-ins. New Georgia Encyclopedia.
  28. Sit-ins. Stanford University.
  29. 52 Individuals, Including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Arrested in Atlanta Sit-In Protest. Equal Justice Intiative.
  30. The Kennedys and the Civil Rights Movement. National Parks Service.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 31.4 The March on Birmingham. Bill of Rights Institute.
  32. Albany Movement. New Georgia Encyclopedia.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Albany Movement. Stanford University.
  34. King, Martin Luther Jr. (1990). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Harper Collins. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-06-064691-2.
  35. How The Civil Rights Movement Was Covered In Birmingham. NPR.
  36. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 37.3 Birmingham Campaign. Stanford University.
  38. "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Stanford University.
  39. 39.0 39.1 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Standford University.
  40. Rosenberg, Jonathan; Karabell, Zachary (2003). Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes. WW Norton & Co. p. 130. ISBN 0-393-05122-6.
  41. Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. (2002) [1978]. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Houghton Mifflin Books. pp. 350, 351. ISBN 0-345-28344-9.
  42. 42.0 42.1 The 1963 March on Washington. NAACP.
  43. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. National Parks Service.
  44. Joachim Prinz. National Parks Service.
  45. Whitney M. Young, Jr. National Parks Service.
  47. 47.0 47.1 The St. Augustine Four is a vital part of Black history. Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
  48. 48.0 48.1 Sand, Surf and Segregation: A Fight for Civil Rights in St. Augustine, Florida. NBC Chicago.
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 St. Augustine, Florida. Stanford University.
  50. 50.0 50.1 50.2 The St. Augustine Movement (1963-1964). Black Past.
  51. Why They Went: The Forgotten Story of the St. Augustine 17. Tablet Magazine.
  52. Martin Luther King Jr. made our nation uncomfortable, Washington Post (Maybe 40 years too early.)
  53. See the Wikipedia article on Highlander Research and Education Center.
  54. King, Martin Luther, Michael K. Honey, and Martin Luther King. All Labor Has Dignity. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2011. ISBN 0807086029)
  55. The Anti-Capitalism of Martin Luther King Jr., HuffPo
  56. Franklin, Robert Michael (1990). Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African-American Thought. Fortress Press. pp. 125. ISBN 0800623924.
  57. “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, Stanford University
  58. King, Martin Luther. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. 1958. PP 92-95 (pp.4-5 pdf). "in so far as [Marx] pointed to a weakness of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite "yes".
  65. King Encyclopedia: Eisenhower, Dwight David (1890-1969)
  66. An extinct breed of Republican
  67. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), p. 575
  68. Garrow, p. 358
  69. Like all frauds your end is approaching, Letters of Note
  71. Burnett, Thom (2005). Conspiracy Encyclopedia. Collins & Brown. p. 58. ISBN 1843402874.
  72. Knight, Peter (2003). Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 408–9. ISBN 1576078124


  1. This wouldn't be the last time something like that happened, either.
  2. If your irony meter caught fire just from reading that, don't worry; you're not alone.