In August of 1966, three years after his “I have a dream speech,” a Gallup poll found that Martin Luther King Jr’s national popularity had fallen to a 63% negative rating. Only 12% of all Americans registered a “highly favorable” opinion of King. In the remaining year and a half of his life King would come out strongly against the Vietnam War and expand civil rights to an economic platform. These controversial calls for radical systemic change cost him more allies. He was helping mobilize the “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis when he was assassinated in April of 1968.
A 2011 national Gallup poll rated King’s favorability at 94% (statistics found in THIS article).
Every time the week of MLK day comes around, I can’t help but think that we generally mis-remember King in two significant ways.
The first is the domestication of his message, as evidenced in the poll numbers above. King had a beautiful dream, but it became increasingly radical and comprehensive the deeper he saw into the soul of the nation. Such disruption of the status quo is rarely popular.
The second way we mis-remember King is that we exult him as a singularly heroic individual, and fail to recognize the wider movement that elevated his voice, and all the other important voices of the time. And the small but vital contributions that so many people made simply by showing up, or lending a hand when they were able. None of us can be the icon King. This serves to both discourage us for falling short, and relieve us from having to try too hard.
King was no Jesus – his womanizing habits are well-documented – but the way we have mis-remembered King resembles our frequent mis-remembering of Jesus. We domesticate his message, and we exult him as Savior without living into his invitation to, collectively, become his living presence. Jesus is Savior precisely because he includes us in the salvation story.
If you need a reason to be troubled by King, an annual reading of his Letter from Birmingham Jail is a good place to start. If you need a reason to be troubled by Jesus, any of the Gospels will do.
This is all hard stuff. Let’s not make it harder by falling prey to mis-remembering the complex, living, breathing people who have helped point the way.