In today's United States, MLK Jr. is universally regarded as a hero and patriot (...or as universally regarded as one can be in this nation). By that, I mean all races, all political parties—everyone is in agreement that he was an "outstanding American" and a courageous leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

But how was he viewed at the time, and particularly how was he viewed by the American public? In other words, what did whites have to say about MLK Jr. back before he was the revered icon he is today?

If possible, I would appreciate some form of analogy with a reference that someone in 2015 would relate to, in order to be able to understand a bygone era's public sentiment in a more visceral way. I realize this may be a silly or crude exercise, but, for example, was King closer to an "Al Sharpton" figure (as in, largely viewed unfavorably, a "no-good troublemaker") or a "Pope Francis" figure ("What a great soul").

I'm curious how King's image has warped over the decades...

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    IMHO, History by analogy invites unwelcome discussion. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '15 at 12:42
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    My problem with this question is that the attitudes and feelings of my white european family from Northern Michigan would necessarily be vastly different from those of White Southern or NYC, or California. America is a vast country, with many differing opinions and perceptions and cannot be easily or correctly corralled into a "this is what White America believes." You also can't reference "main stream media" because even though there were only the three major channels (on TV) you would read the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News depending on your politics... – CGCampbell Oct 5 '15 at 16:39
  • Also, I'm not sure about your statement concern MLK's universality of sainthood. – CGCampbell Oct 5 '15 at 16:48
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    I'm leaning towards CGCampell's point of view that "whites" is just as much a racial stereotype as any other; it conceals truth rather than revealing it. And it ignores the perspective of other ethnic groups (Hispanics, Asians, ...) and other relevant groupings (women, communists and dangerous things). All that said, OP's question is valid; how was MLKjr perceived by other than his (presumed) core constituency? – Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '15 at 18:12
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    @CGCampbell -- Was there public opinion polling at the time? – Kyle Oct 7 '15 at 21:34

Actually, a good modern analogy might be to look at how white mainstream America views the Black Lives Matter movement currently1: open hostility from social conservatives, and a lot of patronizing disagreement on methods from Liberals and Moderates.

Where the analogy (probably?) breaks down is that there were a great many conservatives who flat out wanted the man dead (as evidenced by later events), and that the FBI felt he was a danger to the State, and treated him accordingly.

I think your best view of the attitude he had to deal with from white liberals comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to address their criticisms.2 From it, we can discern the following criticisms from "Moderates" who claimed to be supportive:

  • He was bringing in non-residents for his actions.
  • The demonstrations themselves were problematic and frivolous.
  • Private negotiation should be used instead of public disruption.
  • He was creating lots of "tension".
  • He was attacking a relatively supportive government before it had a fair chance it help them itself.
  • He was demanding change too quickly.
  • He was breaking laws.
  • He was inducing whites to violence.
  • He was inciting passions in his own people that might be leading to violence on their part.

Here's a video of MLK on NBC's Meet the Press in 1965 receiving this exact same treatment from a panel of white journalists two years later. All these criticisms will sound quite fresh, if you follow the discussions around current American social justice movements. Surprisingly little seems to have changed in that regard.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

1 - I am not equating the two directly. I'm just comparing the response they have received.

2 - Linked here is the letter that was the main catalyst for King's letter, written to attempt to undercut his support while he was conveniently in jail. As the last thing his jailors wanted was him responding, King's letter was written in the margins of newspapers and smuggled out piecemeal. However, its clear from the response that he was addressing more than just that one letter.

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    "patronizing disagreement on methods" , who's the patronizing one? – Sam Oct 5 '15 at 17:46
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    Your emphasis on the patronizing nature of liberals or moderates seems to be exaggerated. Sure there is always infighting amongst pretty much every group or organization in existence about how to best a achieve a goal, but that doesn't mean they were not honest allies, for the most part, trying to achieve a collective goal. Sure johnson in the past and the democratic presidential candidates today were late to the game, but that is only a small part of the overall chain of events. – Mark Rogers Oct 5 '15 at 20:11
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    BLM is at least monitored. @MarkRogers you can be 100% on board with a movement and still be patronizing. – user45891 Oct 5 '15 at 20:16
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    @Sam I'm not sure what the point of your rhetorical question is. Can you clarify? – Mr. Bultitude Oct 5 '15 at 20:46

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