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The Problem With Comparing Today's Activists to MLK

Media coverage of the civil rights movement is a reminder that the deification of King has skewed public memory.

Sixty years ago this month, TIME named Martin Luther King Jr. 1963’s Man of the Year, making him the first solo Black American to hold the title, which was later renamed Person of the Year. After the March on Washington and King’s iconic, nationally-televised speech, he was a fitting recipient of a title given to the person who had done the most to influence news in the prior year. Through the pages of the feature, readers came to know a King who was imperfect, mercurial, and whose leadership was “more inspirational than administrative.” This King was also extraordinarily human.

In short, this portrayal sounds nothing like something one would read about King in 2024.

The dichotomy reveals that King has become mythologized—with major consequences for democracy today. Deifying King creates a contrast between him and social movement leaders in the present. That enables critics to scorn their tactics and deride their movements as being un-King-like.

It also discourages the hard activism necessary to create social change. As Dianne Nash, a founding leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), worried would happen, the public adoration of King leaves Americans waiting for the next transcendent, once-in-a-generation leader to emerge. They don’t understand that the civil rights gains of the 1960s came from years of concerted activism by a cadre of leaders, none of whom lacked flaws or escaped criticism in the moment.

Despite the reverence with which King is remembered, he was actually highly divisive during his life. In 1963, only 35% of white Americans had a favorable view of the reverend, a favorability rating that would drop even further in the last years of his life.

Media discussion of King reflected this reality, including the Man of the Year profile. 

The seven-page Man of the Year feature, titled “America's Gandhi: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” included photos of King in some of the pivotal moments of the Civil Rights struggle, from his arrest in Birmingham in 1963 to his meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Yet the accompanying feature, though largely positive about the civil rights movement, was anything but a hagiography of King himself.

In fact, reporter Marsh Clark conveyed outright skepticism about King’s leadership of the movement. Despite his prominence, King had “neither the quiet brilliance nor the sharp administrative capabilities of the N.A.A.C.P.'s Roy Wilkins.” He also lacked “the sophistication” and experience in dealing with business leaders that could be attributed to the National Urban League's Whitney Young Jr., as well as “the inventiveness” of CORE's James Farmer, “the raw militancy” of SNCC’s John Lewis, and “the bristling wit” of author James Baldwin.