Conservatives keep watering down MLK’s message for their own agendas

The response to the "Take a Knee" protests is the latest example.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. locks arms with his aides as he leads a march of several thousands to the court house in Montgomery, Alabama, March 17, 1965. (CREDIT: AP Photo)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. locks arms with his aides as he leads a march of several thousands to the court house in Montgomery, Alabama, March 17, 1965. (CREDIT: AP Photo)

Conservatives — especially white conservatives — like to argue that there’s a right way and a wrong way to protest. The right way, they argue, is any quiet, silent demonstration in which activists mostly do nothing and disturb no one. The wrong way is everything else.

To explain what the “right” kind of protest looks like, white conservatives often co-opt the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr — whose method of nonviolence and peaceful boycott is, in their eyes, correct, wholesome, and majority-approved.

Most recently, a version of that message has been used to criticize the NFL players and other professional athletes who have taken a knee during the national anthem in support of justice for the black community.

“The civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. were a case study in disciplined political campaigning,” The Federalist’s Mark Hemingway wrote on Tuesday, bemoaning the ongoing racial justice protests, which were started last fall by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. “I regret to say that what’s going on in the NFL is destined to agitate rather than accomplish, because no one seems to have learned the lessons of civil rights protests.”


Hemingway suggested that, like King, NFL players like Kaepernick should have a “clear message and goal” and should “embrace patriotism, American ideals, and inclusivity,” among other things.

Of course, the movement Kaepernick started does include those things. Its clear message is a denouncement of police brutality and against black citizens and injustice; its goal is to start a dialogue among the public regarding those issues. And as 49ers strong safety Eric Reid — who first protested alongside Kaepernick — added in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, it has always been a movement rooted in patriotism and love of country.

King was, in his time, widely considered an agitator himself. And leveling King’s message against Kaepernick, Reid, and all of the other protesters taking a knee is an injustice all its own, according to King’s daughter.

“People didn’t approve of the way my father protested injustice either,” Bernice King, King’s youngest daughter, tweeted last Sunday. “[They] said he was causing trouble, called him an ‘outside agitator.’ Many who quote [him] today, and use his words out of context to deter nonviolent protest, would have hated him openly then.”

At his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, for example, King himself spoke out forcefully against the horrors of police brutality, noting that his push for justice would continue, no matter the backlash.


“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?'” he said. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The idea that King’s movement was acceptable to the public is also a myth. In reality, despite following rules that modern-day conservatives believe should be the guidelines for a productive protest — practicing nonviolence, advocating a clear message — the result was still bloodshed and pushback.

At least 32 black citizens, including King, were killed as result of racist clashes during the Civil Rights era, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Three of them were members of the military or veterans. In one famous instance that took place on February 18, 1965, a peaceful march turned deadly when around 450 black parishioners who had gathered at a local church in Marion, Alabama to hear King’s associate C.T. Vivian speak were confronted by state troopers. The group had planned to march to the Perry County Jail, where activist James Orange had been imprisoned after being arrested for “enlisting students to aid in voting rights drives”, to stage a quiet protest, according to CNN.

As University of Delaware history Professor Gary May described in a February 2015 column for the Daily Beast:

There stood more than 200 Marion policemen, Perry County deputy sheriffs, and 100 state troopers dressed in riot gear—as well as townspeople brandishing clubs. …Marion Police Chief T.O. Harris stepped forward and told them to return to their church or face arrest for unlawful assembly. …Rev. James Dobynes asked Harris, “May we pray before we go back?” and then knelt to pray. The troopers grabbed his arms and legs and dragged him away. That seemed to be a signal to the other officers and townspeople, because suddenly the streetlights went out and the mob attacked demonstrators and reporters alike.

Eventually, troopers descended on a nearby cafe where several activists had been hiding and began beating black patrons. One of the troopers then drew his gun and shot 26-year-old Army veteran Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was unarmed, in the stomach. He died eight days later.


The FBI, then led by J. Edgar Hoover, later claimed that the Marion incident had been “grossly exaggerated” and that there was “no truth to the statements that Negroes have been brutally assaulted.” A White House spokesman later added that the troopers had utilized the correct amount of force “necessary to handle an unruly mob.”

The incident later led to one of the most famous marches in American history, the historic Selma to Montgomery march, led by King himself. The march, a peaceful one, was also met with violent resistance.

In a speech following the march, an impassioned King stated that rich white aristocrats had “revised the doctrine of white supremacy” and “saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it” in order to keep black citizens from voting and achieving equality. He added that “the battle [was] in [their] hands.”

“Numerous editorials [ask], ‘When will Martin Luther King… and all of these civil rights agitators and all of the white clergymen and labor leaders and students and others get out of our community and let Alabama return to normalcy?'” he said. “We will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy… The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”

Today, critics often use watered-down versions of King’s message to blast any attempt by the black community to effectively protest instances of injustice. They accuse protests against racial injustice of stoking division and causing violence.

However, King himself once cautioned the public against rushing to judgment when outbursts of violence — such as riots — occur amid the struggle for civil rights.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots,” he said in his 1968 speech, “The Other America.” “It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”

In response to the overwhelming backlash to the NFL protests this week, Bernice King tweeted on Wednesday that Kaepernick’s movement shouldn’t be shut down because it’s currently causing some tension. “‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice,'” she wrote, quoting her father.

What [Kaepernick] started should not shift course because of tension. Tension often precedes social change. Racism/police brutality = issue. Tension does not always = hate or destruction of people. It often means something is being confronted. Racism must be confronted & defeated. When tension is cultivated by love and truth, it can lead to heart, mind and systemic change.

Despite what critics might claim, public figures and activists provoking backlash by making demands for justice are — and have always been — on Dr. King’s side.