Horace Cort/Associated Press
During his life Martin Luther King Jr. was, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “‘buked and scorned”–and by a quite diverse cast of enemies and associates. Segregationists called him “Martin Luther Coon” and “Martin Lucifer.” J. Edgar Hoover had an FBI pet name for him–“burrhead”–and in public labeled him “the most notorious liar in America”; King’s “I Have a Dream” speech so incensed Hoover that he stopped informing King of plots against his life and assembled FBI leaders for an all-day conference dedicated to “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.” Lyndon Johnson reportedly called him “that goddamned nigger preacher” after King denounced the war in Vietnam, and neither Johnson nor the two living ex-Presidents attended King’s funeral.
Within the civil rights movement, King faced constant heckling. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who once welcomed King to his vacation home in Bimini, gloated shortly before his assassination that the day of “Martin Loser King” had “come to an end.” Thurgood Marshall, who helped mastermind the legal attack on segregation but represented a more moderate wing of the movement, called King an “opportunist” and a “first-rate rabble rouser.” Those who sought purposely to rouse the rabble also taunted King. The young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee mocked him as “Slick,” or “De Lawd,” and distinguished their grassroots-style organizing from his pulpit-based leadership. Malcolm X often referred to him as a “modern Uncle Tom”–an epithet given the twist of “Uncle Chicken Wing” by the Invaders, a Black Power group that injected a volatile energy into King’s final campaign in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that King, who aimed to challenge and bridge longstanding divisions within the black community, the liberal-left community, the labor movement, the church and American society more generally, was such a lightning rod during his lifetime. Prophets, after all, preach from a lonely mountaintop, and a prophet who doubles as a movement strategist will raise even more hackles. More surprising has been the academic reassessment, over the past few decades, of King’s role in the civil rights movement. Historians in the 1980s and ’90s took a cue from King himself, who wrote that it was “the people who moved the leaders, not the leaders who moved the people,” and dedicated themselves to recovering the unheralded efforts of the movement’s foot soldiers, those activists who organized in Montgomery and elsewhere before King arrived and who kept doing so after he left. These historians helpfully directed our attention from the pulpit to the pews, and from there to union halls, student centers and beauty parlors.