Forget much of what you know about Martin Luther King – his media image is the product of post-mortem sweetening. If you review your public statements on capitalism, racism or the Vietnam War, you will find that your political speech could be described as “radical”. Today we think of that word as a synonym for “extremist”, but the first definition of the term provided by the SAR is the following: “belonging to or related to the root”.
In political terms, being “radical” implies maintaining that some problems do not admit partial reforms: they must be tackled from the root. For example, the segregationist laws that existed in the United States until the 1960s. Partly because of this, a poll conducted by Gallup in 1966 (two years before he was killed) showed that two-thirds of Americans had a negative image of King.
How then to explain that, according to a survey carried out by Ipsos in 2019, 90% of Americans now have a positive image of King? First, because the movement he led managed to succeed: according to the same survey, 70% of Americans believe that the civil rights movement made theirs a better country. That is, today even a majority among non-Hispanic whites are in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but that was not the case when they were passed.RELATED
The protests this Saturday filled the streets surrounding the White House. (Photo: Reuters / Jim Bourg)
Second, in hindsight what is most rescued from his legacy is his invocation of nonviolent resistance as a form of political action. Here to the misunderstandings around the figure of King, we should add those that persist over the figure of the person who served as his inspiration: Mahatma Gandhi. Although they shared the conviction that they were ethically preferable, the main reason they both proposed nonviolent forms of resistance (to British colonialism, in the case of Gandhi, and to institutionalized racism, in the case of King), is that they believed in its political effectiveness. In this they were ahead of their time: almost a century after King’s birth, authors like Érica Chenowitz conclude that, between 1900 and 2006 worldwide, protest campaigns that did not appeal to violence were twice as likely to achieve your goals than those that did.
In King’s case, the logic behind his preference for nonviolent forms of protest has also been corroborated by subsequent research. For example, that of Omar Wasow, who not only finds that successful cases in the vindication of rights for African-Americans are associated with non-violent forms of protest, but also that it is so for a reason that Martin Luther King foresaw. . According to him, since African-Americans made up a small minority of the population in the United States, his cause needed allies among the majority of non-Hispanic whites. But, in turn, some whites who could sympathize with the civil rights movement distanced themselves from it when they associated it with a challenge to law and order. Not surprisingly, after the violent protests following King’s murder, that was a campaign slogan that allowed Richard Nixon to win the 1968 presidential election.
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