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Martin Luther King Jr. Myths

Donate We break down four popular myths about Martin Luther King Jr. that just won't go away.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracy Theories, History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid Podcast #918
January 9, 2024
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Martin Luther King Jr. Myths

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there are a few things you are sure to hear. One is excerpts from I Have a Dream, one of the most famous speeches in world history; another is perspectives on his life and what he worked for; another is the purpose of the day, which is to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Dr. King; and a fourth one — especially if you go onto the Internet — is misinformation about him. Myths about Martin Luther King Jr. are spread by harmless ignorants, by deliberate racists, and by lazy repeaters. Today we're going to have a look at four of the most popular, and thus arm ourselves to recognize them when we see them, and not become a part of the problem.

Myth #1: King was killed by Loyd Jowers, not James Earl Ray

The major conspiracy theory that dominates retrospectives on Dr. King was the question of who assassinated him. The "official story" — which has been ratified and reinforced every single time any investigation has looked into it — is that James Earl Ray, a loner ex-con with southern roots, acted alone to murder King. No clear motive was ever proven. Although he may have had associates, no evidence has ever surfaced. All the evidence that does exist is that Ray, his rifle, his binoculars, and other personal items, all flamboyantly festooned with his fingerprints, were at the scene when the bullet was fired.

One breed of conspiracy theorists have long believed that Dr. King was murdered by a coalition of the US government and the Mafia. Even much of the King family remains persuaded of this. In 1993, a quarter of a century after the killing, a random weirdo named Loyd Jowers came out of the woodwork and announced on the ABC News show PrimeTime Live that he had been hired by the Mafia and the government for $100,000 to organize the assassination, so Ray was actually innocent. His story was full of contradictions and made little sense. Jowers worked with the King family and with attorney William F. Pepper, a broad-spectrum conspiracy theorist, to have them sue Jowers in court for $100 for killing Dr. King. For four weeks, Pepper brought in more than 70 other conspiracy theorists who all recited their claims; few of them had any actual connection to the case. Jowers offered no defense, and so the jury needed only as much time as it took to fill in the forms to find in favor of the King family. Jowers paid the $100 then promptly died. Conspiracy theorists have pointed to this judgment as legal proof that James Earl Ray was innocent, but of course it doesn't prove anything at all, except that it's not all that difficult to abuse the court system.

Myth #2: King was a Republican

Every year when Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes around, there's one thing you're almost certain to see: some paid advertisement claiming that Dr. King was a Republican. Was he? Well, obviously no, but it's also not as simple as that.

King's father, often called Daddy King, was indeed a Republican in the early and mid 20th century, but became a Democrat later. This had less to do with his own feelings changing than it did with the well-documented swap in many positions between the Democrats and Republicans that took place mid-century. Prior to that, the Democratic party (especially in the South) was closely tied to segregation, and generally opposed the civil rights movement. Blacks tended to be Republicans, as that party was the one that had been founded on anti-slavery principles, going back to Republican President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

By the time Dr. King rose to national prominence, things were different in America. Under President Eisenhower, Republicans began to take a slower and more cautious approach to civil rights. It was Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson who, with King's help, passed both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democrats were all-in on civil rights and — at least as far as party leadership was concerned — had fully abandoned their earlier segregationist roots.

Nevertheless, it is true that Dr. King absolutely did not identify as a Democrat — and neither did he identify as a Republican. Of party politics, he once famously said "I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both — not the servant or master of either."

Myth #3: King opposed affirmative action

Often, when one faction opposes another, they co-opt one of that group's heroes and claim that that person held a view contrary to the rest of the faction. A familiar example of this is how some Christians claim that Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein or someone recanted their atheism on their deathbed and admitted they were religious all along. It's false, but it's one way that a group can gaslight an opposing group into thinking they've been hypocrites all this time.

Similarly, opponents of affirmative action have often held up Dr. King as one who opposed affirmative action: "See, if your hero believes this, then it must be true and you all must be wrong." Well, of course it's as false as Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein having deathbed conversions.

The view that Dr. King opposed affirmative action has been notably advanced by conservative activist Dinesh D'Souza, in a deceptive effort to dissuade liberals against the policy. D'Souza has described Dr. King as having views similar to those of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is Black, and who openly opposes affirmative action on the basis that true advancement for Blacks in America comes from personal merit, not from outside help. Thomas' may be a minority view within the civil rights movement, but it is one view. Consider the famous line from Dr. King's speech:

I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

It is not unreasonable to interpret this as meaning that Blacks should be neither impeded nor assisted based on the color of their skin. The content of their character is the tool they should use to either progress or to stagnate.

However, such an interpretation of I Have a Dream ignores the entire context of Dr. King's work. An undeniable example is Operation Breadbasket. In the late 1960s, Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded Breadbasket as a nationwide organization which conducted pickets and boycotts of companies operating in Black communities, to pressure them to hire representative numbers of Black employees. Among its leaders was King's protege Jesse Jackson. It was the prototypical grassroots affirmative action organization.

Some confusion may also lie in the fact that Dr. King did not advocate affirmative action only to benefit Blacks, but poor whites as well. He favored affirmative action according to economic need, not simply to race. One of his best known campaigns was for Congress to create an "economic bill of rights" to benefit what he termed a "multiracial army of the poor". A read of Dr. King's final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? leaves no doubt that King advocated a version of affirmative action that would guarantee equal opportunity not just for Blacks but for all disadvantaged groups.

This policy of "To each according to his need" rings with echoes of Karl Marx, and it's well known that King had deeply studied Marxism and, while he ultimately rejected Marxism and the label of socialist, he was drawn to its model of what he termed economic justice. Recall that during the American Civil War, Marx had corresponded with President Abraham Lincoln, in the hope of driving the war to evolve into a communist revolution. Lincoln, however, wasn't having any of that, and flat-out rejected Marxist socialism; but both men were in agreement that the termination of slavery was essential: Marx, because that would elevate the labor class; and Lincoln, out of basic human morality. Dr. King embraced both motives, and founded his model of nonracial affirmative action on both humanitarian and economic principles.

Myth #4: King's birth name was Martin Luther King Jr.

Sure enough, one of the most famous names in the world was not always his name. Dr. King's birth certificate shows his name simply as Michael King, no middle name, and no Jr. His father (Daddy King) was also Michael King, with no known middle name.

Michael King Sr. was the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1934, he attended the Baptist World Alliance congress in Berlin, Germany. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany and was in the midst of rising to Führer. The congress toured sites associated with Martin Luther, the German theologian and architect of the Protestant Reformation. When King Sr. returned to Atlanta, he was said to be a changed man. He began to use the middle name Luther and was often known as M. L. King, though still Mike to his friends. Soon he went all the way, changing his name to Martin Luther King, and then going back to his son's birth certificate. Where it once said Michael King, the Michael was crossed out, a comma was added after the last name King, and Martin Luther Jr. was appended. And so came into being one of the most famous names in American history.

Correction: It turns out this story, though given in biographies and considered correct by many, is almost certainly false. For a comprehensive account of this finding, see error corrections episode #931. —BD

Like all humans, Dr. King was a complicated being. He was not a perfect person. His views did evolve over time. He was a man of conflicts: Although a champion of civil rights, he was openly sexist, denying women advancement within his SCLC; and was a serial philanderer. (In fact, if we were to include a 5th myth today, it could be that he believed in equal rights for all, men and women.) He was at once loved and hated by world authorities, being the youngest person yet to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, while also the target of a decades-long dragnet by his own government looking to dig up dirt on him (it was J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO that produced the proof of King's extramarital affairs, using illegal wiretaps). And so while you may not be able to encapsulate him, you may not be able to say any one thing about him that was always true, you can always make up falsehoods about him. And every year, racists and opponents of what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for will always do just that.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Martin Luther King Jr. Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 9 Jan 2024. Web. 20 Jun 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4918>

 

References & Further Reading

Blackburn, R. Marx and Lincoln: An Unfinished Revolution. London: Versa, 2011.

Clanton, N. "Why Martin Luther King Jr.’s father changed their names." Lifestyles. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, 13 Jan. 2023. Web. 4 Jan. 2024. <https://www.ajc.com/lifestyles/why-martin-luther-king-father-changed-their-names>

DOJ. "King V. Jowers Conspiracy Allegations." Civil Rights Division. US Department of Justice, 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 4 Jan. 2024. <https://www.justice.gov/crt/vii-king-v-jowers-conspiracy-allegations>

Herbers, J. "Chicago's Operation Breadbasket Is Seeking Racial Solutions in Economic Problems." The New York Times. 2 Jun. 1969, Newspaper.

Hersh, B. Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Johnson, C., McNamara, A. "Despite Swirl Of Conspiracy Theories, Investigators Say The MLK Case Is Closed." 1968: How We Got Here. NPR, 4 Apr. 2018. Web. 4 Jan. 2024. <https://www.npr.org/2018/04/04/598826351/despite-swirl-of-conspiracy-theories-investigators-say-the-mlk-case-is-closed>

Laurent, S. "MLK Was an Exemplar of a Black Socialist Tradition." Jacobin. Jacobin Foundation, 4 Apr. 2023. Web. 4 Jan. 2024. <https://jacobin.com/2023/04/martin-luther-king-jr-mlk-socialism-class-racial-justice-civil-rights-movement>

Moses, G. "To Begin Where We Have Not Yet Reached: Affirmative Action in the Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr." NWSA Journal. 1 Oct. 1998, Volume 10, Number 3: 54-72.

 

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