His birthday is a national holiday in the U.S. His leadership in the struggle for civil rights and his nonviolent stance have made him an international icon of social justice. But that wasn't always the case. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, 1968, historians tell us that it wasn't King's work while he was alive nor even his tragic death that changed his reputation in the minds of most Americans.
Jeanne Theoharis teaches political science at Brooklyn College and is the author, most recently, of "A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History." Her book is an attempt to get beyond the myths that have arisen about the civil rights movement and look at how it was really seen then and what it means for us now.
Many Northerners, for example, believe that King was always a beloved figure and that his crusade against the Jim Crow South was widely celebrated by them. But Theoharis points to a New York Times poll from 1964 — the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed — that showed a majority of white New Yorkers thought the civil rights movement had gone too far. And a national poll in 1966, just two years before King's death, found that only 28 percent of white Americans had a favorable opinion of MLK. (A separate 1966 poll found that 78 percent of blacks rated King's job performance in the "fight for Negro rights" as "excellent.")
"The general public does not support the civil rights movement when it's happening," says Theoharis. "The same criticisms made against Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement today were trotted out against Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks 60 years ago. They were disruptive, they were called extremists, they were accused of moving too fast, going too far. All these things we see today have parallels in the civil rights movement."
Even King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., viewed today as the high watermark of the movement and King's short yet impactful career, was delivered under a cloud of fear and tension.
"We think of the March on Washington as the most American event ever," says Theoharis. "At the time it wasn't seen like that. Local and federal law enforcement prepared for it like it was an invasion."
Many Americans also believe that King's work ended with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and that the acts themselves somehow "cured" the nation of institutional racism.
But Clayborne Carson, history professor at Stanford University and founding director of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, points out that King didn't retire after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
"He was in Chicago the next year dealing with problems more national in scope that are still with us today. He was dealing with the question of war, and now we're living in an era of perpetual war. He was dealing with issue of poverty on the day he died," says Carson. "If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would say that [the landmark legislation] was a tremendous victory, but it has made us very complacent about his goal of global human rights and social justice. That was his big picture."
The Turnaround on King's Legacy
So, if King was distrusted and maligned by mainstream America during his life, was it his martyrdom at age 39 that changed public opinion and transformed him into an almost saintly American hero? Not immediately, says Theoharis, explaining that it took 15 years of lobbying by civil rights leaders and sympathetic legislators to finally convince Congress to commemorate Martin Luther King Day.
President Ronald Reagan, who was against the holiday during his first term in office — he agreed with former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that King was a communist — changed his tune when running for re-election and needed to close a "sensitivity gap" with minorities and women.
Signing the bill in 1983 that made King's birthday a national holiday, Reagan skillfully laid out the elements that would become the national fable:
Theoharis says that Reagan's genius was to frame King's story as another example of American exceptionalism.
"We had an injustice and we corrected it. It's all about the power of individuals and the power of American democracy," says Theoharis. "These will be key elements in terms of how the civil rights movement comes to be memorialized in our national culture."
By 1987, four years after the creation of MLK Day and nearly 20 years after King's murder on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a full 76 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of King and those numbers only continued to grow, says Theoharis. (By 1999, King came in second on a Gallop survey of 20th-century individuals Americans admired most, behind Mother Teresa.)
Political scientist Sheldon Appleton wrote in 1995 that younger, college-educated white Americans tended to support King and both of these demographics were larger in 1987 than in 1966. He also noted that the widespread lack of knowledge about King and the civil rights movement in general (see sidebar) might have also colored earlier perceptions. "Perhaps recent media treatment of King has helped to induce selective memory by some middle aged and older Americans," Appleton wrote.
Of course, Americans have every reason to venerate Martin Luther King and to celebrate his accomplishments. He didn't do it alone, and he had his flaws like any other man, but as Carson explains, he also had an undeniable gift for challenging Americans, then and now, to make good on the promise of our founding principles.
"He had that ability to link the goals of the civil rights struggle to ideals that most Americans believe that they have," says Carson. "That's what he was doing in [the 'I Have a Dream' speech in Washington]. We as a nation justified our independence with a human rights statement called the Declaration of Independence. The question is: can we live up to that?"