This is part three of a sponsored post series with Wells Fargo.
In my lifetime everyone has always referred to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero. He has, to my knowledge, always been revered, there’s always been a holiday honoring him, and there’s always been a monument dedicated to his legacy. When I got the whole story, however, I was shocked that I didn’t know all the untold stories.
By the time I got to college I learned about the FBI spying on him, his reported infidelities, and how much he was hated during his lifetime.
In case you don’t know about any of those things in my previous paragraph, feel free to watch the brilliant film SELMA by director Ava DuVernay that was released last month. Due to her vision and the way she directed it, you won’t be able to leave the theatre and forget that Dr. King was a watched man by the FBI.
In 2011, Gallup Poll did a survey looking at the popular opinion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time when the marches and protests were taking place. At the time, Dr. King was considered radical for his ideas and his pushback on people he should have expected support from but didn’t get. In May of 1963 37% of those polled found him to be “unfavorable” and 25% of those polled found him to be “highly unfavorable”. Naturally, there’s been a shift in the public opinion about Dr. King with many hailing him as a Civil Rights “hero” with a national holiday and monument dedicated to him.
Yet, what about the polls throughout the 1960s questioning his popularity? Were the marches and protests and speeches he made successful or did he hit popularity low? Are the stories we tell our children a fair representation or should we discuss the radical, disastrous parts as well?
Looking back on American history, it’s easy to see how the narratives of Black men and women have been shaped, but we’ve done an unfair job of showing the North as more ‘progressive’ than the South. While Selma became a famous march and his I Have a Dream became his most famous speech, Dr. King encountered plenty of wrath in his time.
Some of the untold history of Dr. King’s work rests on failed protests and counter-protests. Beginning in 1965, Dr. King began to focus on housing issues in Chicago, an issue that many found more unpalatable than simply riding an integrated bus. While marching through Marquette Park with other protestors about the unfair housing laws, King said this became the most ugly encounter with counter-protestors that he’d even seen.
There was massive resistance from Whites in the North, thousands of whom came out to scream and hurl objects at the non-violent group that included Dr. King as they marched throughout the Southwest and Northwest sides of Chicago. The protests were to oppose discriminatory ordinances barring rental or purchasing property, something systemic racism has perpetuated for so long that the legacy of that cycle continues to be a struggle.
About his time in Chicago, King said, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago. I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”
While the Chicago Freedom Movement wasn’t as successful as the marches in Birmingham and Selma, they weren’t total failures. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities came out of this movement, which put the focus on housing discrimination, something that long needed to be corrected as it was systemic policy.
Dr. King was vehemently disliked over his anti-war sentiments as well, but the prevailing thought at the time was that his work should be singular in nature and focus on singular issues. However, he was fighting for a variety of aspects of the marginalized lives of Blacks. Workers’ rights, unions, anti-war, housing discrimination, voting rights. These were complicated issues that were built into the layered system of discrimination that the Civil Rights fought and continues to fight.
One would think that his colleagues of the cloth would be supportive of the Reverend King, but many clergymen penned open letters to Dr. King criticizing his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They considered him an outside agitator who was a part of the “them” against their “us”. Though some ministers were affiliated with the SCLC, they still practiced xenophobic beliefs about his work. Responding to them in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. King supplied them with not only a moral impetus for his appearance at protests, but he pushed back on their privileged status.
The way we’ve created narratives to justify and shape the way we look at the legacy of people who worked for the fight for Civil Rights isn’t as clear-cut as it should be. These untold, or not-told-as-much, stories are still a part of our history. The radical thing to do would be for us to look at it directly and keep peeling apart the privileged systems that favor some and punish others. The radical thing to do would be to continue to fight, even as unpopular as that is, because it’s still the right thing to do.
This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Wells Fargo and The Untold Stories Collection. You can find their story gallery here, and share your own story. Make sure to use the hashtag #MyUntold when sharing on social media, and tag me so I can see it!