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How media remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Shwetha Sundarrajan The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte's editorial board. 50 years after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., people across the United States will celebrate the legacy of the beloved icon by watching the countless documentaries and movies produced in his wake. Major news outlets will publish tearful commentaries on the late civil rights leader, and social media will be flooded with quotes and pictures of King. He may be loved by the media today, but 50 years ago King’s popularity had sharply declined with the national papers. It all started with a speech he gave on April 4, 1967, popularly known as the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech.

Image from Thirteen
King said, “There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” The backlash from the media was swift. The New York Times, in “Dr. King’s Error,” reminded King that his proper battlegrounds were “in Chicago and Harlem and Watts.” In the Washington Post, they said that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” This particular speech caused King to lose many of his followers, including African Americans and causing his white liberal supporters to jump ship due to his threateningly confrontational language.
Image from Carnegie Council
50 years later, we don’t remember King as the open critic of the government and an opponent of the Vietnam War, we only remember a sanitized version of him. We remember him as a black man embracing all Americans, black and white. Films such as the Oscar-winning film Selma help us cement the memory of 1965 King — a man who only wanted African Americans and white Americans to live equally. Misrepresentations of King are not only found in Films though. Recently, Congressman Steve King also misquoted King on Twitter. 

While the film did portray an accurate historical representation of the Selma march, it also stirred up controversy in regards to overdramatizing the relationship between President Johnson and King. But movies like Selma, which showed King actively embracing white Americans are, for the most part, false. King was widely critical of active racists and criticized many white Americans for sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing. He famously said , “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
And In August 1966 , less than two years before King was gunned down, a Gallup Poll asked Americans for their opinion of King, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the civil rights icon. Nonetheless, it can be said that Selma, as well as many movies and other forms of media, thereafter played a pivotal role in establishing King’s legacy as simply a champion for civil rights. We don’t remember him as an intelligent human being that foresaw the impacts of economic inequality and state-sanctioned violence. Society has basically reduced him and misrepresented his intentions. Was it intentional? Or is this just what happens to famous people in history?
Rolling Stone The Root Thirteen Carnegie Council