“There’s always going to be a group that attempts to demonize that which is being done — and for their own purposes, not because it’s right, good or just, but just because they want to foster a different position,” said Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s oldest son. “Dad totally used the method of nonviolence, and he was consistently criticized.”
Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter and chief executive of the King Center, said she believed the sanitized version of his work “reflects attempts to not only diminish my father’s courage and tenacity in speaking truth to power, but also reflects attempts to diminish the power of nonviolence.”
Whether they involve a rally, a raised fist or a bent knee, protests have always drawn a public backlash. In fact, the very tactics some point to as models now were considered too confrontational then — leading Dr. King, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” to denounce “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.’”
Carol Faulkner, a historian at Syracuse University, reeled off a list of brutal public responses to peaceful protests as far back as the 1830s, when a white mob tied a rope around the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s waist and dragged him through the streets of Boston, and more than 10,000 people descended on a meeting site for abolitionists in Philadelphia and burned it to the ground.
Nineteenth-century women’s suffragists “went out of their way to present themselves as very middle-class, very respectable, and used the tools of respectable politics,” Dr. Faulkner added. But their message made them targets even when their tools were petitions and town-hall meetings, and those tools were not always effective.
In 1860, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the House Judiciary Committee for two hours, after which The New York Times reported, “She was earnest, and eloquent, and plausible, but she must have felt that she was not convincing her audience — and she did not.”