Martin Luther King Jr. is cherished by most Americans, treated as one of the greatest peaceful protesters in history, and heralded for bringing people together to help combat racism in the US.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, King was repeatedly derided by his opponents for inciting violence. The FBI even investigated him, fearing his potential impact on US society. The White House, meanwhile, seriously feared that the March on Washington would lead to riots and violence — something that seems completely absurd today.

Still, we see something similar today in how the public and media behave toward people they disagree with, from the Tea Party to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is why the history of King’s treatment matters: It shows just how easy it is to misread and demonize the intentions of people we disagree with, even when it involves someone now widely considered an American hero in peaceful protest.

Martin Luther King was criticized for inciting “hatred and violence”

Martin Luther King Jr. during his renowned "I Have a Dream" speech.(AFP/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King, who’s now widely seen as an advocate for peaceful protest, wasn’t quite viewed that way by everyone during the 1950s and 1960s.

A 1963 letter from eight white clergymen — which inspired King’s famous response, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” — told black protesters to stand down because they were inciting “hatred and violence” in Birmingham, Alabama. The clergymen warned about the effects the protests in Birmingham led by “outsiders” like King would have:

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have Read More Here