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The latest New Yorker cover gets Martin Luther King completely wrong

The January 26 New Yorker cover attempts to reconcile the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with more recent discussion about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But it misses some important nuance behind King's protests and how far the civil rights leader sometimes went to convey his message.

Here is the cover, from Barry Blitt at the New Yorker:

new yorker mlk cover

(Barry Blitt / The New Yorker)

The cover shows King with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and New York City Police officer Wenjian Liu, who was killed by an unstable gunman in December.

It's not that there's any one wrong detail in the cover. Rather, it's that the cover as a whole endorses a common misconception that King was entirely about harmony — when, in fact, King was often willing to embrace (nonviolent) conflict when he thought it necessary. A more accurate depiction might show him, say, on the front lines of the peaceful Ferguson protests.

The artist's description of the cover bears this out.

"It struck me that King's vision was both the empowerment of African-Americans, the insistence on civil rights, but also the reconciliation of people who seemed so hard to reconcile," Blitt, who drew the cover, told the New Yorker. "In New York and elsewhere, the tension between the police and the policed is at the center of things. Like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, Martin Luther King was taken way too early. It is hard to believe things would have got as bad as they are if he was still around today."

While King certainly tried to bring people together, he would sometimes call out and try to shame his opponents when reconciliation failed. And in the South, where many public officials stood by racist policies, reconciliation failed a lot.

King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote to white religious leaders who criticized protests in Birmingham, Alabama, stated that peaceful protests were necessary in part because reconciliation between black Americans and those in power had failed.

"You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham," King wrote. "But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."

And much of the problem was rooted in tensions between the black community and police. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, King said, "There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality."

Since King's death, people have obfuscated his call for peaceful protests into a call to protest without being confrontational. But King consistently confronted the people in power — and sometimes it even landed him in jail.

Further reading: What Oprah missed when she criticized the Ferguson protests.