The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man Beloved Today, Not So Much in His Day

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is a figure admired by broad swaths of the American public – to the point where we have given him a federal holiday on his birthday. His legacy of passionate, nonviolent struggle against racism on behalf of Black Americans continues to inspire people both in the United States and the wider world. Yet King was not always so universally beloved; in his own day, he was despised by many of his white contemporaries as an agitator who stoked racial tension instead of easing it. J. Edgar Hoover, the then-director of the FBI, led a secretive campaign during the 1960s to discredit King in the eyes of the American public.[1] According to a poll taken by Gallup in 1966, two years before he was assassinated by a white supremacist, 63% of the American public had an unfavorable view of him.[2]

King’s mugshot from his arrest by police for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Even the day to which his name is affixed was not free of controversy. Though some cities and states had declared MLK Day as early as 1970, it would not become a federal holiday for well over a decade after he was killed.[3] Many politicians thought King a divisive figure for his activist work against racism, the Vietnam War, and poverty. Yet those wanting to honor King’s potent legacy persisted. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, a committed civil rights activist herself, fought to ensure her husband’s memory was etched into the annals of America’s history and founded the King Center shortly after he was killed in 1968. She organized a commemorative march in 1983 for the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, bringing some 500,000 people to Washington, D.C. to demand Congress pass legislation for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.[4] Her efforts and those of Black political leaders in Congress would bear fruit: President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation enshrining Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday into law in November of 1983.

King’s portrait upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Photo from the Nobel Foundation Archive.

I remember checking out and reading King’s 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait when I was a college student, which contains his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, an essay King wrote after being arrested for protesting the harsh racial segregation of Birmingham, Alabama. In vivid, forceful prose, King articulates a vision of a truly just America: an America where all people regardless of color, religious belief, or national origin can thrive and achieve lives of dignity, free of the burdens of systemic injustice.

Responding to the criticism from sympathetic religious leaders that as a Georgia preacher he was interfering in an issue that was not his to interfere in by protesting segregation in Birmingham, King said:

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[5]

It is a message that still rings true today as we see the ambitions of his dream of an America free of racism not yet fully realized – a dream effusively spoken by him at the March on Washington nearly 60 years ago. The library has several resources in many forms of media to explore King’s life and the broader civil rights movement. I hope this list may be of use to those wanting to learn more about the sacrifices of King and those who followed his principles of nonviolence in the struggle for racial equality in America.

[1] “Why the FBI Saw Martin Luther King Jr. as a Communist Threat,” The History Channel, accessed January 12th,, 2023,

[2] “Americans see Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero now, but that wasn’t the case during his lifetime,” CNN, accessed January 11th, 2023,

[3] “Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Holiday” Encyclopedia Brittanica, accessed January 10th, 2023,

[4] “King National Holiday,” Stanford: The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, accessed January 12th, 2023,

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World, edited by James Melvin Washington (HarperOne: New York, 1992), 85.



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