Dr. Derrick White analyzed the evolution of Dr. Martin King Jr.’s rising popularity during a lecture series at Pasco-Hernando State College, to honor the contributions made by the slain civil rights leader.
White gave presentations at the college’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, and also spoke at its campuses in New Port Richey and Brooksville.
His talk was entitled “Making a King: The Contested Legacies of a Civil Rights Icon.”
White, a history professor from Dartmouth College, told the audience at the Jan. 23 event at Porter Campus about the gradual acceptance of King, which occurred over decades and resulted in a national holiday every year in King’s honor.
“It’s hard to imagine that Martin Luther King’s legacy was at one point contested,” White said.
Then, he asked rhetorically: “How did King become more popular in death?”
Before delving into this gradual shift, White shared facts on America’s perception of King prior to and immediately after his assassination.
In a 1966 Gallup poll, for instance, King had a 63 percent unfavorable rating across the nation.
Then, he showed the audience two images from King’s funeral procession in Atlanta.
In one image, dots were used to denote the minority of whites in the crowd; in the other, they denoted the overwhelming number of blacks in attendance.
“It visually gives you a sense of how unpopular King was in the broader community,” White said. “What we’ve witnessed in the 50 years since his assassination, has been the acceptance and admiration of King by all political stripes, races, creeds and colors.”
However, getting to that point was an uphill battle, as King tackled social issues, the professor said.
King called for a Marshall Plan to be implemented in the U.S. – similar to the one for rebuilding a post-World War II Europe. He proposed an initiative to advance economically stricken black communities.
This, along with King’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, only made him more unpopular, White said.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
While this was seen as progress, the Watts Riots in Los Angeles followed soon after, raging for six days and resulting in more than $40 million of property damage, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library.
An investigation, prompted by California Gov. Pat Brown, found that the riot was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment rates, substandard housing and inadequate schools, according to the library’s website.
White argued that Malcolm X was seen as a more effective leader at that time because he was able to convey the anger of African-Americans in a way King did not.
What’s more, the backlash toward King and the civil rights movement was not only confined to the Jim Crow South, but throughout the Midwest and North.
“The racism and vitriol he faced in Chicago was worse than any place he had ever stayed in Alabama or Mississippi,” White stated.
The historian then circled back to his original question on King’s rising popularity after death. He attributed it to two incidents.
First, there was the creation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center and its conflict with the Institute of the Black World.
Second, there was the debate in the 1970s and 1980s over having a Dr. King holiday.
After King’s assassination, his family opened an Atlanta institution in his honor in 1970.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Center consisted of a monument, library, park, museum and two academic institutions – one being the Institute of the Black World (IBW).
According to White, the King Center and its IBW faction had different agendas in mind.
The center wanted to solely memorialize King and mark the civil rights movement as a success.
The IBW, however, wanted to move beyond honoring the fallen hero and focus on liberating blacks, said the professor.
In the IBW’s quest to collect historical records for its archive, it found itself in mounting debt.
Financial issues resulted in staff workers being laid off and the institute eventually disbanding from the King Center.
White stated that the King Center’s overall vision would help set the stage for a national holiday.
Fifteen years of debate in Washington D.C., also played a factor in the inception of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Congressman John Conyers would first introduce legislation for a holiday in 1968, but it didn’t get the votes needed to pass.
In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy also implored a day of memorial, stating that King’s movement had been successful.
It wasn’t until 1983 that President Reagan signed the legislation declaring a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, and it was first celebrated three years later.
Forty-four states initially recognized the holiday, but expanded as King’s signature speech became the centerpiece of his legacy, said White.
White argued: “Conservatives between 1979 and 1983 showed acceptance of the King holiday when they could not stop its passage – in part because King was now being defined by his ‘I Have A Dream Speech’.”
The professor tied it to today’s political atmosphere, stating that certain rhetoric and actions show a misunderstanding of King’s vision – citing the partial overturning of the Civil Rights Act in 2013.
When asked if America would have made progress had Dr. King not existed, White answered yes.
“We treat King as the entire Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “At some point someone would have emerged to push these issues forward.”
He added that the movement was bigger than King and that when Rose Parks came to prominence, King was an unknown pastor at the time.
Published January 30, 2019