The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the public imagination was a unifying figure who bridged America’s bitter racial divide and peacefully liberated the South from Jim Crow.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who actually existed was spied on and blackmailed by the federal government, arrested roughly 30 times, beaten, stalked and assassinated, and died one of the most disliked people in America.

In life, despite his commitment to nonviolence, he was not seen as a model of socially acceptable protest. But in death, he is presented as such by opponents of newer movements, including the demonstrations that have spilled from Minneapolis into thousands of cities and towns in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

These sorts of transformations happen repeatedly in the accounting and recounting of social movements, historians say. As movements unfold, the most disruptive parts tend to get disproportionate attention, and critics often portray them as representative of the whole. In the retelling, the least confrontational parts get the same treatment: People sanitize the movement for public consumption, downplay its opposition and use the mythologized version to discredit its successors.

So it is that the Rosa Parks in many history textbooks just wanted to sit after a long day of work, when the real Rosa Parks was a longtime activist who sat as a calculated political act; that the suffragists most popularly memorialized are those who circulated petitions, not those who burned President Woodrow Wilson in effigy outside the White House; that the antiwar activists who went to Woodstock are better known than the ones who ransacked draft board offices and destroyed the files.

What emerges is not only an antiseptic image of individual activists, but an oversimplified division between “right” and “wrong” ways to protest that historians and social scientists say impedes understanding of how movements achieve their goals.

“The whole purpose of protest is to interrupt your daily life, to interrupt the previously scheduled programming so you pay attention to something new,” said Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School who studies how movements use public discourse. “That’s not necessarily the same thing as condoning setting buildings on fire, but it’s certainly not the case that plain civility is something that would ever work.”

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