As the nation erupted this past year in multiple protests against systemic racism in America, the crowds often gave voice to the long-esteemed protest strategy of peace and nonviolence. The mid-century civil rights movement’s sit-ins and marches were the protest paradigm to be emulated.
The movement’s events, its leadership and its ethic of nonviolent resistance, grounded in the storied teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, provided the pathway to the desegregation and voting rights successes of the 1960s and ’70s. Time and again, be it the summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd, or the myriad women’s marches, and many other protests on abortion, immigration, climate change, science literacy, gun control, health care and others in Washington, D.C. and across the nation, protesters hearkened to King’s lessons.
The tendency to remember the civil rights movement in this almost mythic fashion, however, stands in stark contrast to the true history of the freedom struggle as it was perceived by the nation at the time. While more than 90 percent of U.S. adults now view King favorably, a 1966 Gallup poll showed Americans were nearly twice as likely to have a negative as a positive opinion of him.
Historian Jeanne Theoharis examined the public memory of the movement in her 2018 book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. She argues that a simplistic and inaccurate narrative accompanied the erection of monuments to civil rights heroes and the creation of commemorations like the national holiday honoring King. The story we began to construct was a narrative that everyone could get behind, “a story of individual bravery, natural evolution, and the long march to a more perfect union,” she writes. “A story that should have reflected on the immense injustices at the nation’s core and the enormous lengths people had gone to attack them had become a flattering mirror.”
A new film MLK/FBI, by the acclaimed Emmy Award winning director Sam Pollard, speaks directly to the dissonance between our popular memory of the civil rights movement and its complicated history. Pollard, who is known as the editor on Spike Lee’s films, as well as for directing films on the civil rights movement like Slavery by Another Name and the classic “Eyes on the Prize” PBS series, wanted to create “a film about how [Dr. King] is considered an icon now but was considered a pariah back in the day.”