Pundits misappropriate Martin Luther King Jr.’s racial activism

Racial tensions are at the forefront of this year’s presidential debate. There’s no way around it.

Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence in open racial strife in the United States, and the two major candidates are working aggressively to play to their end of the field on the subject.

It has become common practice amongst conservative pundits to invoke the names of civil-rights-movement revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in an attempt to condemn modern protest movements.

In July, for instance, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement is a fundamentally violent organization that King would have opposed. Fox News has particularly reveled in using the common public image of MLK as a weapon against black protest, painting King as a relatively moderate, passive social leader.

The trouble is: this version of King is a lie.

Putting aside his substantial written work condemning the apathy toward injustice that pundits like O’Reilly flaunt, it’s important to consider how King’s actions were viewed during the time of his movement. Sixty percent of white Americans had an unfavorable view of the march on Washington, believing it would incite violence and accomplish nothing, according to a 1963 Gallup poll. Nearly 50 percent of white Americans believed civil rights organizations were “dominated by communist trouble-makers,” according to another Gallup poll in 1964.

Perhaps most tellingly, a civil-rights-era comic from The Birmingham News portrays MLK talking with a reporter on the street, destruction left and right, burning cars in the background, a wounded white man lying on the ground. “I plan to lead another non-violent march tomorrow!” King said in the comic.

The message is clear: King is a violent rabble-rouser, his speech of “non-violence,” a sham. How convenient then that this same man, who was lambasted by conservatives of his time as “violent” and “destructive,” is now being painted by present-day conservatives as a paragon of virtue and a champion of non-violent protest.

The reality is that not much has changed between now and then. The past few years have seen an array of peaceful protests, violent riots and many things in-between, just as the 60s did. It would be folly to call the present movement “non-violent,” just as it would be folly to call the civil rights movement “non-violent.” They both encompass thousands of people with differing attitudes and perspectives who will respond to situations differently.

The thread that cuts through time from the 60s to the present, and across all of those thousands of people is this: racism persists as a real, destructive, pervasive force.

Andrew Allen is a senior majoring in communications. This is the first column in a two-part series on contemporary racism. Upon Further Review runs alternate Thursdays.