So yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US. I think it is great Americans celebrate the life and work of Dr. King, and I hope all Americans take the day to reflect and work towards a more perfect union inspired by his ideals and vision.
It’s always a weird day on Twitter, though. I think this Wesley Yang quote hits the nail on the head:
MLK said some stuff that radicals like to quote and other stuff that conservatives and moderates like to quote, and of course what made him what he was is the ability to hold these contrasting impulses in balance
— Wesley Yang (@wesyang) January 18, 2022
It’s true: MLK did say some radical things and he also said some moderate things. Moderate people want to claim him for his own and ignore the radical things, and radicals do the reverse. He was trying to bring people together and to move civil rights forward. There was no one way to do that. So was he moderate or radical? It depended on the context.
It’s also a weird thing when someone or some organization references Dr. King and someone quote tweets that and says “oh by the way, they are hypocritical to says that for reasons A, B, and C”. It’s the nature of people to dunk on others on twitter: I feel it just feels like petty squabbling on a day we should aspire to better.
The other thing that seems to happen on twitter every year on MLK day are tweets stating how unpopular he was at one point. As Gallup states:
in 1966 — the last Gallup measure of King using this scalometer procedure — it was 32% positive and 63% negative.
Which is not false. It’s also not the whole picture. As CNNPolitics shows, “Black Americans” saw things differently:
The vast majority in 1963 thought his work for equal rights was moving at the right speed (71%) or not fast enough (21%) compared to 8% who believed it was happening too fast. In 1966, 84% of Black adults had a favorable view of him, while 4% had an unfavorable view.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an active political figure trying to effect major change. It is not surprising that his popularity was not high like it is now. That’s fairly common of political figures. For additional context, he was listed as one of the top ten admired men in the nation in 1964 and 1965 but not 1966, according to that Gallup piece.
Popularity is a complex thing to measure. People trying to say King was unpopular back in his time are being highly selective in their selection of data, to say the least.
Anyway, I hope people’s tweets are aspirational versus petty when the holiday arrives. I think Dr. King would want that.