I read today that in 1966, a Gallup Poll measured Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorability at 33%, while 63% of those polled disapproved of him. This was over 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched King to prominence and focused the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. This was 3 years after King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall, unifying the call for freedom and the need for jobs with his singular voice. This was 1 year after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that was attempted 3 times, where white and black civilians linked arms, allowing their conviction and hope to propel them to walk across a bridge and a state, some sacrificing their wellbeing or very lives as civilians and policeman brutally, openly, attacked them. The violence broadcast in the month of the march woke the conscience of a nation, encouraging the Congress of the United States to support the Voting Rights Bill. Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.
Dr. King and the SCLC forced the country to observe their status quo. Their bravery was remarkable, but it was effective because it created a setting in which African Americans and their white allies were vilified and attacked for doing every day life: for sitting on a bus on the way to work, for walking across a bridge, or for ordering coffee at a lunch counter. These acts of resistance were brilliant because they were mundane. Everyone knows what it is like to order a drink expecting to receive one. Although not many white folks knew what it was like to be black, they could certainly understand what it meant to be refused service just for existing. To be beaten just for walking in your Sunday best.
Dr. King and the SCLC reminded the country of visceral, instinctive compassion. The images captured and scenes witnessed were so uncivil that they “announced that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann). Those living in the white majority would most likely have argued that society could not be characterized as full of hate; rather, they were full of civility and kindness and would remain so as long as African Americans stayed in their lane. This type of delusional break from reality is only possible when compassion and empathy are dead. This is how the antebellum South could be remembered as a place known for genteel manners, kind hospitality and gorgeous vistas in settings in which bodies were chained, whipped and forced to work in the glare of said gorgeous vista. We cannot hold onto both ideas at once, so we ignore the ugly and mythologize the good. Dr. King was both wildly unpopular and most effective because he exposed the average citizen to the flaws in their own mythologies. Truth tellers are often avoided (Cassandra, anyone?), and Dr. King kept showing the country the truth of the everyday, mundane trauma African Americans experienced, dispelling the delusions that America was a land of respected and kind free people who rewarded hard work.
In 1966, the actions of Dr. King disrupted the status quo in violent ways. The actions of those in the movement forced people to realize there is a vast difference in order and in peace. Those “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”…people “who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” would not and could not find Dr. King ‘favorable’ (King). Dr. King’s actions boldly broke the beloved mythology of ‘separate but equal’, a centuries-long commitment of society to silence dissent to such a degree that, according to King, “we have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated.” The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society destroys the inner lives of African Americans. They explained that waiting “for more than 340 years for [their] God-given and constitutional rights” leads a person to be “plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’” (King), your own humanity cries out to simply do mundane tasks—like taking a bus, taking a walk, or taking a sip of coffee at a counter—with dignity. Dr. King’s actions made him unpopular in the moment because he demonstrated the injustice and unsustainability of the status quo so cherished by white people with power. His actions, and the violent reactions to them captured on film, forced society to engage compassion as they realized everyday, mundane hurt is “an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann). 63% of Americans didn’t favor him because his actions destroyed their delusions.
Dr. King’s words also made him unfavorable with a very powerful group of people in the South: White Christians and their churches. Dr. King, always willing to collaborate with those who followed Christ in the work of doing justice and making things right for their neighbors, forcefully outed those in the church who chose power over sacrifice, acting as the “arch supporter of the status quo” (King). Indeed, his words claimed that—especially for Christians—the measure of peace cannot be the absence of trouble, but must instead be the flourishing of all people in great and mundane tasks. He wrote, “somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” For a Church committed to theologies of victory and favor, committed to a status quo maintains power for their glory, such words of interdependence wound deeply, demonstrating why he was unpopular.
In our decade, Gallup found that Dr. King has a 94% favorability rating: He is celebrated, loved and quoted by many. Next week I will explore the roots of this ‘favorability’, and discuss what honoring his legacy must mean for us. For now, let’s allow the words and actions of Dr. King to expose our delusions about our status quo. Are we facing the mundane trauma of the marginalized or do we discredit and ignore their hurt? Do our words and actions honor or destroy his legacy?