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Remembering The Unpopular MLK Jr.

Today will be largely dedicated to remembering the popular Martin Luther King Jr., the one that everyone supports as a national hero. This revisionist history is unfortunate, because it obscures the deeper vision of King, a vision that remains unpopular to this day.

First, to the polling data from Gallup:

Gallup MLK jr

From 1963-1965, King was, at best, divisive. While slightly more people had favorable than unfavorable views (except in 65), those with highly unfavorable views outweigh highly favorable ones. But in 1966, King is clearly quite unpopular, with 44% having highly unfavorable views. So, what happened in 1966? Well, King started to say things like this:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, “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. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

This was not entirely an new theme for King. Nonviolence and economic justice had always been a major part of King’s work. However, the general public knew him primarily for his activism on segregation. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1964, King was very well-known, and with the start of the Vietnam War, his anti-war activism became well-known to the public.  King viewed the problems of racism, violence, and economic oppression as interrelated:

Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

One of the demands of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a higher minimum wage. In 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25, or $8.37 in today’s dollars, and the marchers asked for an increase to 2 dollars, which is 13.39 today. In other words, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was higher 50 years ago than it is today, but was still not adequate to raise a family with dignity.

Perhaps the biggest reason for King’s unpopularity was that he was, by his own admission, maladjusted to society.

There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize — I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to — segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence. But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…
For King, being maladjusted was a powerful force for change. Indeed, in his book Transformed Noncomforist, King wrote that, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” This passion for change and willingness to see problems in the very structure of society has never been popular.  King’s struggle against poverty and hunger continues to this day, because despite all of our technological progress, the true revolution of values that King yearned for has not taken place.  I’ll close with King on poverty and the continuing struggle:
Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? Even deserts can be irrigated and top soil can be replaced. We cannot complain of a lack of land, for there are twenty-five million square miles of tillable land, of which we are using less than seven million. We have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed – not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.

3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Faith and Public Policy and commented:

    One of the more popular things I’ve written for work. Thought I’d share it here also because of how important it is to remember what MLK Jr. actually stood for and how unpopular he was because of it. How quickly we forget.

  2. […] 5. Martin Luther King Jr. was very unpopular during the 1960s. It’s worth remembering why: […]

  3. […] is part of the way in which race is constructed in the United States today. Dr. King was deeply unpopular before his death. But by the time I first learned about Dr. King, as a middle class, South Asian growing up in a […]

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