MLK Would Never Shut Down a Freeway, and 6 Other Myths About the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter

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by Jeanne Theoharis
July 15, 2016

On Saturday, as protests mounted across the country following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed explained the large police presence at downtown protests to reporters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”

Reed’s claim was historically absurd. Martin Luther King Jr. took many a highway—most famously, perhaps, in the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Reed is not the only one trafficking in dangerous and distorted ideas of the civil rights movement. Across the political spectrum over the past two years, as Black Lives Matter burst into national consciousness, many commentators—from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (who said that King would be appalled by BLM) to Oprah Winfrey (who told young activists “to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention if you want real change” ) and the Rev. Barbara Reynolds (“We were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity”)—have invoked the history of the civil rights movement to chastise Black Lives Matter. They and many others have cast today’s protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the peaceful, respectable, unified legacy of the civil rights movement.

These framings misrepresent the movements that BLM activists are building across the country and the history of the civil rights movement. Such historical revisionism is both dangerous and comfortable—dangerous because it grossly distorts how the civil rights movement actually proceeded, and comfortable because it allows many Americans to keep today’s movement at arm’s length. This repeated comparison has become one of the ways that many justify hand-wringing on the sidelines—as if they would act, given a righteous movement like King’s, but today’s activists are simply too excessive, too disruptive and too unrespectable.

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