Segment from BlackStory

MLK: From Activist to Icon

How did Dr Martin Luther King Jr go from being the enemy of white America to an icon, almost universally admired today? In an extract from our BackStory Show The Real Martin Luther-King Brian speaks to scholars Jason Sokol, Jeanne Theoharis, Thomas Jackson and Clayborne Carson about King the Icon, and asks if we have forgotten just how radical Martin Luther King was.


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In April 2018, Back Story marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with a show which explored King’s real political views and assessed his legacy. One of the topics we addressed was the nature of King’s posthumous rehabilitation.
In 1966, a Gallup poll had found that King was viewed unfavorably by 63% of Americans. Today, of course, King is an American icon, and a 2011 poll found that 94% of Americans had a positive view of him. So, how did that happen? My colleague, Brian Balogh, talked to a number of King’s scholars.

Ronald Reagan: When I was thinking of the contributions to our country, the man that we’re honoring today, a passage attributed to the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier comes to mind. “Each crisis brings its word and deed.”
In America in the 50s and 60s, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination. A man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Brian Balogh: On November 2nd, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Day holiday into law. It was a holiday that Ronald Reagan had opposed for decades, but in a speech in the Rose Garden in front of members of Congress and members of Martin Luther King’s family, he praised King as a man who awakened something strong and true in the American people.

Ronald Reagan: In 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down by a brutal assassin, his life cut short at the age of 39. But those 39 short years had changed America forever.

Brian Balogh: The session ended with the guests bursting into an impromptu rendition of the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome. King had already appeared on a US postage stamp in 1979, but the national holiday in his name was a crucial step to establishing him as a national symbol.
Today, Martin Luther King is celebrated in children’s books, inspirational posters, and a monument in Washington DC within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
A Gallup poll in 2011 found 94% of Americans have a positive view of Martin Luther King. In August 1966, a Gallup poll found that King was viewed unfavorably by 63% of Americans. So how did King make this journey from controversial civil rights leader to American icon?

Jason Sokol: The first point was the assassination itself, where the way King died positioned him to become a martyr.

Brian Balogh: Jason Sokol is the author of The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jason Sokol: The other thing is that King’s death itself accelerated the move toward radicalism and militancy among African-Americans, and that was something that was going on among young Americans in general. You know, the Weathermen gathered steam and momentum in 1969 and beyond, so a lot of the alternatives that were offered in ’68, ’69 and through the 70s were these more violent alternatives, and when King’s message was counterposed against those alternatives, he began to seem even more moderate.
And so I think a lot of white Americans could latch onto parts of King’s vision that they were comfortable with. For instance, every American today probably knows the line from the “I have a dream” speech where King talked about how he longed for the day when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Now, that’s a message that a lot of white Americans can embrace.
Later in the same speech, King talked about the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. He talked about the whirlwinds of revolt that would shake the nation if justice didn’t come soon. So I think there were parts of King’s career and life where he really did offer this vision of inter-racialism and color blindness, and I think, over the years once he was gone, it became easy for white Americans to embrace one part of his message, the inter-racialism and color blindness part, and conveniently forget about the parts that were more threatening. King’s challenge to American imperialism, King’s challenge to capitalism itself.

Brian Balogh: So has the creation of King the icon come at the expense of King the radical, political leader? Jeanne Theoharis.

Jeanne T.: I think we like a King who is easy. What we don’t tend to want is a King who challenges us, who shows us our complacencies, who calls us out for wanting easy change, wanting change that won’t cost us anything. I mean, I think we like an association with King, right? But we like that only as far as it makes us feel good about ourselves, and the minute it holds a mirror to our contemporary actions, it becomes less appealing.

Clayborne C.: He was safer dead than alive. For most Americans, he was more acceptable.

Brian Balogh: That’s Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Clayborne C.: You know, you could see it happening the moment he died. Look at who came to the funeral. People who would not have been seen next to him when he was alive, especially from the political world. They all wanted to be in the front seat at the funeral, and people who had known and followed Martin Luther King couldn’t even get in. There was already that beginning of the reinterpretation of Martin Luther King, that he was the great, heroic figure of American citizenship because that’s the part of him that had become part of the self-conception of the nation. The Civil Rights Act kind of took away that stain of the Jim Crow system, and so if you identified him with that, that was something that embarrassed the nation and the world, but what he was doing during the last three years of his life, of course, was quickly forgotten.

Brian Balogh: Tom, help me out here. Today, we go into schools and see pictures of Martin Luther King. He is so much a symbol of bringing the nation together, if you will. How did the King who was despised by so many at the time, how did the King who was portrayed as a Communist and a radical by the FBI, how did that King become domesticated?

Thomas Jackson: It’s a complicated process. It’s happening before the assassination. You can see King speaking differently to different audiences. He’s labeled a moderate militant by [Augie Meyer 00:45:05] in 1965 not because he was both at the same time, but because he spoke to different audiences based on his judgment of their values, what they were ready to hear, what it was safe for him to say.
It’s no surprise that in the dream speech he would appeal to the Christian and the American Nationalist ideals, and share this optimistic hope that one day his children would be judged on their character and not their color, but nor is it surprising that a month later, with 20,000 trade unionists in Madison Square Garden, that he would include a much more radical line from the standard dream speech. “I have a dream that my children would grow up in a nation where property and privilege are widely distributed, a nation which does not take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

Brian Balogh: King has become quite a hero of those who are identified on the right side of the political spectrum. Ronald Reagan and a number of neo-conservatives have embraced King as a symbol for America.

Thomas Jackson: Absolutely, and there are elements of symbolism and pieces of rhetoric that support a kind of conservative approach or a celebration of America as post-racial. My best example is when Reagan signed the holiday bill after years of debate, well, not only did he say “We won’t find until 2027 whether he was really a communist,” what he did was he went to black schools and lectured that “Martin Luther King believed that all of you should be judged by your character and not your color as individuals. His dream was the American dream. It’s a dream that made America great, and it has come to pass, and you now all have opportunity because of Dr. King. And had he lived, he would support my policies of Reaganomics because an unfettered marketplace is the best arena in which that kind of individual freedom can thrive. He would’ve opposed affirmative action because it’s not the state, it’s God that gives you your rights, and affirmative action is a violation of that sacred principle of individual liberty.”
You can quote King to support that, and he did, so that ideological contest … At the same time, there were marches on Washington that were bringing Reagan to task. Look at the photographs of the 1983 march that I attended, and they are all taking Reaganomics to task for violating King’s economic dream of a real war on poverty, of a guaranteed annual income, and of affirmative action that would uplift suppressed minorities.

Jeanne T.: I think if we listen to Dr. King, Dr. King is calling out systemic racism in the United States. There’s this beautiful quote that he writes at the end of his life where he’s talking about how black people took people on their word that equality means equality when many white people sort of take equality as just improvement, and are not committed to equality at all. That Dr. King would be very dismayed at the ways that he is now deployed in the service of inequality, in the service of standing in the way of movements for justice today.
We have Mike Huckabee calling on Ferguson protestors to be more like King, or we have then-Mayor Kasim Reed saying, “Dr. King would never take a highway,” which is a gross distortion of who King was and what he did.

Brian Balogh: But is it possible 50 years after his death to reconnect King the icon with King the radical, political leader? Clayborne Carson.

Clayborne C.: I think it is because you have a new generation coming up who are dealing with the problems left behind by the civil rights struggle. You know, that’s why I think the relevance of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here … He was writing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, so contemporary movements are basically making the same argument that he made back in 1967. They’re saying that these changes were important, but they didn’t deal with the fundamental problems in America. The fundamental problems was not this southern Jim Crow system. That was an important issue that needed to be taken care of, but once you’ve done that, it just makes the south like the rest of the nation, and it’s not like black people are thriving in the rest of the nation.
So I think that’s where we are now. We haven’t answered his question, where do we go from here?

Nathan Connelly: You heard the scholars Jason Sokol, Jeanne Theoharis, Thomas Jackson, and Clayborne Carson there discussing the legacy of Dr. King with our own Brian Balogh.
The segments you heard today and many more are in our archive at
Funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is helping Virginia Humanities and Backstory change the narrative of race and representation.
Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost’s Office at the University of Virginia, the Johns Hopkins University, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 30: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connelly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by [Andrew Windham 00:51:47] for Virginia Humanities.