Every year since enacted as federal law in 1986, MLK Day has celebrated the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. in some capacity across the United States. While some states initially rejected the holiday, or combined it with a holiday celebrating historical Confederate leaders as a way to diminish the spotlight on MLK (check out this article from Vox for more), every state has recognized the holiday since at least 2000. Today, it is often celebrated with parades, nonviolent protest and community gatherings, and additional focus in classrooms for students of all ages.
Growing up and seeing celebrations of MLK Day on TV and in classrooms, and even this week as I did research for this blog post, I overwhelmingly found a main theme to these celebrations: focusing solely on the ideal of Martin Luther King Jr. as a nonviolent, beloved icon. From newspaper articles to public statements from lawmakers, King was described as heroic and loved for his focus on nonviolence, but many also described him as someone who looking to create change without disruption. One statement from a political figure even went as far as to say that King would have disapproved of Colin Kaepernick’s famous kneeling during the national anthem during his time in the NFL.
Martin Luther King Jr. did call for nonviolence (though his non-violent approach was often met with violence), but it would be inaccurate to say he wasn’t disruptive. King rose to fame through his leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where he, Rosa Parks, Jo An Robinson, and other civil rights leaders convinced almost 40,000 Black people to stop taking the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, for almost a year until the bus companies were forced into desegregating seating in order to get back any sort of profit. King’s organization of the Birmingham Campaign focused on illegally disrupting restaurants, churches, libraries, and more with sit ins, intending to overwhelm local jails. And the march from Selma to Montgomery, as well as the March on Washington, relied heavily on blocking traffic while marching. Martin Luther King Jr. did regularly speak about the importance of nonviolence, but he also organized in ways that were meant to disrupt the status quo, and called for others to do the same.
King’s disruptive but nonviolent approach made him effective, and he did gain popularity with many Black supporters in the south and throughout the United States, but it certainly did not make him beloved of the general public. In fact, as he became more aggressive with his goals and expanded his activism to include fighting for poor people of all races, protesting the Vietnam War, and being one of the earliest supporters of some form of reparations (check out this clip arguing for reparations from his speech Two Nations of Black America), his popularity rating plummeted. At the time of his death, his disapproval rating was a whopping 75% (for more information about how his goals and popularity evolved, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine). This disapproval largely came from his urging his followers to keep disrupting the status quo, to keep demanding equality, and to keep making those in power—largely white, upper-class citizens—uncomfortable until they conceded to these demands.
In glossing over or watering down Martin Luther King Jr.’s disruptive accomplishments in our present-day celebrations, and in pretending his goals were popular with the general public and those in power, we are denying him an accurate legacy and absolving those in power of their hand in upholding segregation. His accomplishments toward creating a more equal and inclusive country are worth celebrating, disruptions and all.
If you’d like to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and influence on the civil rights movement this MLK Day, check out this list.