Martin Luther King Jr., misquotes, and real quotes

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Martin Luther King Jr., misquotes, and real quotes

Post by Sonic# » Fri Aug 12, 12:34 2011

In another topic on the London riots, I saw Xinzang using an MLK Jr. quote that seemed suspiciously convenient to me. I'm sensitive to the dangers of misattribution, and so I tried to find an appropriate source, and could find none. Currently, it looks to be as much a misattribution as the quote circulated earlier this year on the occasion of Osama Bin Laden's death: wrote: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. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

It's easy to see why it spreads under the guise of a true quote. That one was spread on Twitter. The most likely source I've found for the present misquote is on tumblr. In both cases, they are services where it is easy for material to circulate without attribution, tag, or other context. They are also places where a single post, if compelling enough, can spark hundreds of other retweets and reposts, enough for organizers, writers, and others to get a hold of it. When the context is misrepresented in the initial post, and it is spread, a chain of trust starts. It's so widespread that it must be right, we assume, and many times that's right. When it isn't, we end up misunderstanding how past figures can help us think about present situations. This isn't a modern behavior, though the current factor is new technology. This has happened since people started quoting other people as authorities.

Given our technology, though, we should have an advantage. People can do a couple of things to make sure that quotes aren't throwaway or false moments. First, be suspicious of the overly convenient quote. If it is timely, I see if I can find it used that way in text or transcription. If I can find it, I learn something from its context that helps me apply it to the current situation. If I can't find it, or can't find it in full, then that sets off alarm bells for me. Second, I check quote sites. Quote sites are somewhat fallible, but that can give me a sense of how the quote is most commonly presented. If it only ever appears in section or in approximation, like these two cases, I can gather that something has gone wrong. Third, I run a search in a number of other contexts. I search JSTOR or other services to try to find out where parts of the quote originated. I search for the quote in full and see how far back I can track it.

Finally, I'm throwing up a few quotes that I found in books, ones that have attributions I'm willing to trust. Feel free to use them to think about the present riots, or other issues that might seem applicable.

The Trumpet of Conscience (1968), via The Martin Luther King, Jr., Companion (1993):
The limitations of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat.
Let us say boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.
The decade of 1955 to 1965 with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), via same.
There is something painfully sad about a riot. One sees screaming youngsters and angry adults fighting hopelessly and aimlessly against impossible odds. Deep down within them you perceive a desire for self-destruction, a suicidal longing.
The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.