The Misunderstood Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

So, if King was distrusted and maligned by mainstream America during his life, was it his martyrdom at age 39 that changed public opinion and transformed him into an almost saintly American hero? Not immediately, says Theoharis, explaining that it took 15 years of lobbying by civil rights leaders and sympathetic legislators to finally convince Congress to commemorate Martin Luther King Day.

President Ronald Reagan, who was against the holiday during his first term in office — he agreed with former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that King was a communist — changed his tune when running for reelection and needed to close a “sensitivity gap” with minorities and women.

Signing the bill in 1983 that made King’s birthday a national holiday, Reagan skillfully laid out the elements that would become the national fable:

“Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all,”

Theoharis says that Reagan’s genius was to frame King’s story as another example of American exceptionalism.

“We had an injustice and we corrected it. It’s all about the power of individuals and the power of American democracy,” says Theoharis. “These will be key elements in terms of how the Civil Rights Movement comes to be memorialized in our national culture.”

By 1987, four years after the creation of MLK Day and nearly 20 years after King’s murder on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a full 76 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of King and those numbers only continued to grow, says Theoharis. (By 1999, King came in second on a Gallup survey of 20th-century individuals Americans admired most, behind Mother Teresa.)

Political scientist Sheldon Appleton wrote in 1995 that younger, college-educated white Americans tended to support King and both of these demographics were larger in 1987 than in 1966. He also noted that the widespread lack of knowledge about King and the Civil Rights Movement in general (see “Now That’s Amnesia” at the end of the article) might have also colored earlier perceptions. “Perhaps recent media treatment of King has helped to induce selective memory by some middle-aged and older Americans,” Appleton wrote.

Of course, Americans have every reason to venerate Martin Luther King and to celebrate his accomplishments. He didn’t do it alone, and he had his flaws like any other man, but as Carson explains, he also had an undeniable gift for challenging Americans, then and now, to make good on the promise of our founding principles.

“He had that ability to link the goals of the civil rights struggle to ideals that most Americans believe that they have,” says Carson. “That’s what he was doing in [the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington]. We as a nation justified our independence with a human rights statement called the Declaration of Independence. The question is: Can we live up to that?”