on the fake martin luther king jr. quote

i used to be friends with a woman who loved quotes. she was really invested in social justice & she was like a wizard, she had a quote at the ready for pretty much any newsworthy event or occurence ever. it made me kind of uncomfortable, because the quotes generally functioned as trite bromides that did not create space for the nuances of a given situation. it was almost as if all the space in her head that may have been used for critical thinking & intellectual imagination was instead stuffed with the contents of bartlett’s familiar quotations.

i thought about this yesterday, when social networking sites across the interwebz exploded with the news that osama bin laden had been killed by american forces in pakistan. as a counterpoint to the street parties that followed & the celebratory, xenophobic, hateful commentary streaming across the web, thousands of people posted this a martin luther king jr. quote: “i mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but i will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”

apparently what happened is that someone somewhere looked up a real martin luther king jr. quote that seemed to sum up their feelings–that’s this part: “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” (ps–the next line is, “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” most people left that out, perhaps not wanting to include the word “love” in anything related to osama bin laden.) it’s from a 1963 book called strength to love, from the chapter that is all about how & why to love your enemies. (i read the chapter & it is totally bibletastic, which, you know, martin luther king jr. was a reverend. he was into social justice in large part because he thought it was the christian way to be. i have very complex feelings about using christian bible verses to respond to the death of a muslim person. i don’t know.) someone preceded the real quote with their own commentary–that’s the first sentence. things got garbled & within an hour, the entire quote, including the bit that martin luther king jr. never said, had gone viral was being attributed to him in full.

at least 50% of my facebook friends posted the misquote yesterday. it rang false to me–somehow too perfectly appropriate while also reading as a little insincere. if you really parse out the first sentence, it doesn’t even really make any sense. the conjunction “but” is for connecting two sentiments or ideas that are related but opposed. “mourning the loss of thousands of lives” is only connected to “celebrating the death” of one in that they are both related to people dying. it is self-evident that if a person will mourn the deaths of thousands of people, they are pretty unlikely to celebrate the death of one. the sentence seemed clunky & very un-martin luther king jr. to me, & the rest of the quote, the real martin luther king jr., is full of his usual metaphorical imagery, & has pretty much nothing to do with the first sentence at all.

so i googled it. all that came up was hundreds & hundreds of links to the quote, all from social networking sites, all from yesterday, all in response to osama bin laden’s death. but if it were a real martin luther king jr. quote, wouldn’t the speech or essay from which it came have appeared somewhere? then “the atlantic” posted something about the quote being fake. i took the quote apart, googled again, & figured out what happened.

i find this whole thing super-fascinating, probably because i am a big nerd in a lot of ways. how is it possible that thousands & thousands of intelligent people followed along with their peers in the fiction that the entire quote was the real deal, available at their fingertips for expressing their complicated emotions about the huge news of osama bin laden’s death? the cynic in me (which is to say, about 98% of me) couldn’t help but think that it happened because the quote was the perfect manufactured soundbite for well-intentioned liberals to portray themselves as genteel, objective, & compassionate. quote misattribution & invention is EVERYWHERE, it happens constantly, especially around subjects that are controversial & divisive. this is one big reason why i am not a fan of quotes. not only do they leave little room for discussion or independent thought (i mean, who among us would want to go toe to toe in a battle of wits with martin luther king jr., or mark twain, or oscar wilde, or any of the other gazillions of historical figures & thinkers that have been victims of misattribution?), but they can be cherrypicked & tweaked to mean pretty much anything anyone wants them to mean.

a couple of weeks ago, i was looking up statistics on how many teenage girls who have abortions go on to have repeat abortions while they are teenagers. i found scads of numbers, drawn for all kinds of sources, & used to argue all kinds of different perspectives in the debate on abortion. it’s no secret to anyone who has done so much as write a research paper that statistics can be used to justify pretty much any position you want. quotes function the same way.

what’s really interesting to me is how much traction this quote got, & in what demographic groups, & how people are responding to the news that it is not 100% real. the general response seems to be, “well, it’s still a nice sentiment, even if it isn’t real.” yes, it’s a nice sentiment. but part of its currency & resonance came from the fact that it was presented as a real quote from a real person, & that person was martin luther king jr., who is famous for being a peacemaker, a great orator, & a master of diplomacy around incredibly divisive issues. attaching his name to the words gave them power beyond simple sentiment. then people say, “the last part of the quote is real, it’s just the first sentence that was made up.” yes, & it’s the first sentence that sets the contextual tone that made the entire quote so appropriate for the news of bin laden’s death. in fact, many people chose only to quote the first sentence, as it was the most relevant to the news yesterday, dropping the real quote because i guess they thought the flowery language about light & stars & hate packed less of a punch.

the fact that the quote was so popular among left-leaning social justice types is also really interesting to me. quote misattribution is practically all the tea party ever does–i think they must have a special disinformation team that sits in a locked bunker, making up quotes to justify their fucked up hateful politics. it’s like a running joke, that all these constitutionalists are apparently so dumb, they don’t even know what’s actually in the constitution, they can’t tell the bill of rights from the preamble. but is the left so different? people were told that a quote was by martin luther king jr. & they just ran with it, even though said quote was not really written in his voice & did not make a whole lot of sense. it was a big game of monkey see monkey do, among people who pride themselves on being smarter than their opponents, more politically engaged, more versed in history.

now a lot of people are saying things like, “i saw the quote, i liked it, i posted it. i was busy.” too busy to be accurate? shit happens, we all make mistakes, we all sometimes believe things that aren’t true or trust when we shouldn’t trust. being too busy to source a quote that fifty of your friends are telling you is legit is way the fuck down on the Big List of Mistakes That Matter. but you know…none of these people was too busy to be on facebook or twitter or tumblr or whatever in the first place. they were not too busy to weigh in on a very contentious news item, even if they did not do so in their own words. it took me less than three minutes of googling to determine that the quote was an invention. so “too busy” functions as a defensive smokescreen. people say, “sorry i don’t fact check every single thing i read.” well, i don’t fact check every single thing i read either. but i do read everything with a critical eye, & when i stumble across something that doesn’t smell right, i do a little digging before i tell my fifty closest friends that it’s real. it’s called “media literacy” & it’s not just for reading the paper or picking apart beer commercials.

people say, “you are reading too much into this, it doesn’t really matter.” i think it matters at least a little. we are bombarded with information, statistics, quotes, opinions, & news all day, everyday. if we are going to be responsible citizens of the world, we need to have some ability to parse through the bullshit & determine what seems real & what seems false, what we believe in & what we are told to believe in. i have been accused more times than i can count of having standards that are too high (standards of critical thinking, eloquence, political comprehension, all kinds of things), but i apply those same standards to myself & i do it because i do think it’s important. i want to be a person who is capable of developing my own opinions & then expressing them in my own words. i want to be able to support them with information that i have verified. humans are not creatures of pure instinct. we do have the ability to reason. let’s use it!

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

10 thoughts on “on the fake martin luther king jr. quote

  1. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you for this! I felt like such an asshole yesterday trying–to no avail–to find the original quote. I was a history major, so I’m always obsessed with finding the primary source. But yes, it seemed entirely too perfect. And this quote is so holier-than-thou to me that it seems like in addition to propping people up on social networking sites, it is/was used to shame those who–for whatever reason–had feelings of relief or joy when they heard the news that Osama bin Laden is dead. People who may have realized (hey, cognitive dissonance) that those feelings weren’t feelings they were proud of and that may not have correlated with their other beliefs. People have complex emotions, and I’m okay with that.

    Anyways, I think it matters, too.

    1. it is/was used to shame those who–for whatever reason–had feelings of relief or joy when they heard the news that Osama bin Laden is dead

      Yessss. I won’t lie, my first reaction was relief and I’m not ashamed of that. I expect that I would feel similar relief if Fred Phelps died, or Robert Mugabe, or Gaddafi. And while I wasn’t dancing in the streets I can’t exactly point a finger at people whose families were victims of 9/11 (or other Bin Laden-sponsored acts of violence) doing that, because I can’t know that wouldn’t be my reaction too, if I had a family member who died in the attacks or in the war. Just because relief is someone’s first reaction, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. That smug comment seemed to say, if you were thinking about anything but Bin Laden’s life (like, say, the probability that the war will be shortened due to his death… and the reports say a possible pull-out by Thanksgiving now), that you’re pretty much as awful as any tea partying birther. So basically it’s the same black-and-white crap, except it’s coming from “my side.” Whatever.

      I also think it’s interesting to contrast this with the (semi) recent death of Jerry Falwell, when NOBODY was posting trite fake quotes or saying “well, he was a person, too.” And Falwell’s sins were, pound for pound, considerably lighter than Bin Laden’s. I could make some statement about how Christian extremism is perceived in leftist circles vs. Islamic extremism but that’s really beyond the scope of this thread.

  2. I love this blog post. Seriously. I won’t pretend like I had any clue that the quote was fake, because I didn’t, but I did notice it showing up all over facebook and it made me think about how quickly things can spread and how likely we are to embrace something – even if its false – if it appeals to some core part of ourselves, or maybe even more specifically, our ideas about ourselves. It gives a lot of insight into the way those “OBAMA IS A KENYAN SOCIALIST WHO EATS CHRISTIAN BABIES WHILE WORSHIPING MAMMON” emails spread so quickly and so far. But you are right, if we are going to point and laugh at people who fall for those kind of emails, then it is critical we exercise the same kind of mental vigilance we expect of others.

    I have other thoughts about this, thoughts that are somehow tangentially related to the idea that we are trying to craft these personae for ourselves on facebook (which is a point you made in that facebook update and one I realy liked) but that the end result is that our personae are flattened and homogenized and much less interesting than who we really are in real life. I know, duh, but it feels like I have to point out more and more that an internet life cannot be interchanged with an actual life. I have to think about it more, though.

  3. This is an awesome post.

    If you ever want to fall down a wacky rabbit hole of quote sourcing, I suggest start looking for commentary on the popular Joan of Arc quote, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” You end up encountering some really.weird.people. most of whom are some kind of fundamentalist/pre-Vatican II Catholic and who are really, really into Joan of Arc. But the gist of what people are saying seems really similiar to what you are criticizing about the fake Martin Luther King quote: She sort of said something like that but the popular version of the quote takes away all the actual context of what she said and the way she actually talked. And like the MLK thing, turns it into some bland endorsement of nice liberal ideas rather than the belief of someone who was a really devout Catholic who actually thought that actual angels were talking to her and telling her what to do.

    And most importantly, I did not repost that quote becuase I shotgunned beers to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s and I am not ashamed.

  4. I know typing a row of macro hearts is not the most eloquent way to explain my love for this piece. I don’t know. I have strong feelings about bin Laden being dead. Specifically: I’m fucking glad he’s fucking dead. I don’t think state-sanctioned terrorism is good. I don’t think 99.999% of the US’s military actions are justified (or, y’know, good). I’m not even necessarily glad we killed him. But I’m fucking glad bin Laden is dead! I’ve never been glad about someone’s death before, as far as I can remember.

    It’s difficult to have this feeling while trying to exist within left-y circles. There’s a lot of, “how can you be GLAD about this?”, or “you’re a part of the problem, not the solution,” and tons of other things. But mostly I’m sitting here thinking, now Muslims in the Middle East don’t have to have this guy speaking for them without them wanting to, and also a lot of, this mass murder is fucking DEAD. But it’s still complicated for me. He’s still a person, and I feel TERRIBLE for clapping upon hearing about his death. I guess I’m more glad about the bin Laden symbol being dead than the man himself, but I’m still glad he’s dead.

    But then that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? It’s complicated. There is nothing easy about this. Maybe that’s why people have resorted to posting fake quotes on Facebook in order to express themselves, because they don’t want to have to challenge themselves to think about the complications. It’s easy to quote MLK, even if it’s not really MLK, because he’s an EXPERT about such things, right? Never mind the fact that these aren’t really MLK’s words, and never mind that it’s a big stretch to say that MLK would have disapproved of bin Laden’s killing.

    I’m pretty well-versed in MLK reading; I’ve always felt like as a Memphian, it’s my duty to know his words and philosophies inside and out. He was a peaceful man, but he also believed that it was the duty of all of us to rise up and fight oppression, even if it is not our own. I’m not convinced that had MLK lived to endure something like terrorism, he would have disapproved of murdering terrorists in cold blood in order to prevent the deaths of other people. It’s not like bin Laden waved a white flag and surrendered so that he could be tried for war crimes. He was a terrorist. What do we do with that?

    1. Exactly. He was a mass-murdering terrorist who called for the murder of civilians. I’m not sorry he’s dead. I’m not celebrating, but I’m not sorry. I feel sorry for his family, but I felt sorry for them a long time ago since they had the misfortune of being his family.

    1. i didn’t actually count & do the math, but i have like 150 facebook friends & i don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that the quote showed up in my feed AT LEAST 75 times. at one point i checked facebook & it displayed 195 new posts from friends. easily a third of them (probably more) were the quote in question. i don’t think my friends are lemmings, but i am pretty much only facebook friends with left-leaning folks with an interest in current events & social justice, & i think that is the demographic with whom the quote especially resonated.

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