Today is the official holiday celebrating civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 50 years after his assassination, King is almost universally revered and counted among the likes of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. But this attitude is a somewhat recent development.
During the 1960s, “Gallup measured the public’s perception of King in a different fashion…using a ‘scalometer’ that asked the public to rate him on a +5 to a -5 scale.” Reviewing the data from that decade clearly shows a negative declining trend in King’s public perception.
“In 1963, King had a 41% positive and a 37% negative rating; in 1964, it was 43% positive and 39% negative; in 1965, his rating was 45% positive and 45% negative; and in 1966 – the last Gallup measure of King using this scalometer procedure – it was 32% positive and 63% negative.” There is no Gallup data on King for 1967, the year he died, or the year after.
But why did this marked shift occur? To answer this query, we can look at the mounds of evidence as King was such a legendary orator and prolific writer. This year, ESSENCE takes a look back at his own words to examine some of his lesser known turns of phrase.
Today we often recall the seminal oft-repeated parts of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, but King was extremely outspoken on other matters. A close read of this iconic orator’s words that day prior to his final stanzas offers up a glimpse to a more radicalized approach. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
King’s third book was entitled Why We Can’t Wait, speaking to his sense of urgency and opposition to the gradualism approach. In a 1962 speech, King said “A new and hastily constructed roadblock has appeared in the form of planned and institutionalized tokenism.” “We have advanced in some places from all-out, unrestrained resistance to a sophisticated form of delaying tactics, embodied in tokenism,” continued King. He cited this as “one of the most difficult problems that the integration movement confronts.” “A piece of freedom,” King went on, “is no longer enough for human beings nor for the nation of which Negroes are part. They have been given pieces — but unlike bread, a slice of liberty does not finish hunger. Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible — we have it all or we are not free.”
Although most associate King with nonviolence, this is not entirely accurate. This was evident in a 1965 published piece where King had conducted an interview with Alex Haley for Playboy. He described himself as “militantly nonviolent,” explaining “I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things.”
King also publicly and vehemently denounced America becoming a part of the Vietnam War. He voiced his thoughts on how hypocritical it was to send our young Black men “eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem.” He was opposed to spending money on war, when there were severe problems that needed fixing at home. Shortly before he died, King delivered remarks on February 25, 1967 in Beverly Hills, stating “The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” “Billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war…The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America,” decried King.
Economic justice was another issue at the forefront of King’s agenda. In a 1966 column for The Nation, King addressed these concerns, writing: “Whether the solution be in a guaranteed annual wage, negative Income tax or any other economic device, the direction of Negro demands has to be toward substantive security. This alone will revolutionize Negro life, including family relations and that part of the Negro psyche that has lately become conspicuous-the Negro male ego. Our nation is now so rich, so productive, that the continuation of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation.”