MLK was not beloved in his own time & why that can free us all

This weekend includes Martin Luther King Jr day in the United States. It has already been a long series of various politicians, celebrities, dignitaries, and every day humans sharing messages of MLK. Most frequently are, as always,

  • I have a dream that … will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

  • We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

These are important messages and ones that we can and should aspire to achieve in our lifetimes.

But what we forget far too often…what many of us do not yet know…is that MLK was a despised man in his lifetime. He was not beloved in the masses. Politicians, celebrities, dignitaries were few.

A 1968 Harris poll showed that more than 75% of the American populace (those asked and able to respond) disapproved of him. That disapproval extended to the Civil Rights movement and the growing economically focused People’s Campaign. He was assassinated.

Ignoring that MLK was as hated in his time as he is beloved in ours, reduces the power of his legacy as well as our own opportunity to live into our own.

For example, without this context, we can forget that how speaking truth to power isn’t popular for anyone and it has a cost for everyone. A multitude of publicly available studies show that up to 85% of people who report toxic behaviors at work – like bullying, harassment, discrimination – experience retaliation.

If we haven’t yet experienced the consequence of speaking and acting out, we know what that cost will be: skipped over, ignored, reduced, even being fired of “eliminated.”

We also most likely all know what it feels like when we don’t do the right thing and instead ‘go along to get along’: loss of confidence, increase of anxiety, decrease of trust, reduced engagement, among many others.

These are only the professional costs, the costs in our personal lives can be even steeper.

When I learned what the general public - as well as the religion, community, and family of my childhood - thought about MLK during MLK’s lifetime, I felt emboldened, strengthened. Even somewhat freed.

People who drive change are not beloved by the ‘masses’. They never have been. They most likely never will be.

They do it anyway.

That is a part of MLK legacy that I believe we would be better served to include as we celebrate his life and grieve his murder.

Let us also hold these in our hearts, in our mouths, and our daily actions:

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  • The time is always right to do what is right.

  • The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

  • Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

  • In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

And - YOU, do it anyway.

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