fake martin luther king, jr. quote demonstrates how we got the apocrypha

MLK said what?There is a beautiful quote going around the internet. It reads:

“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.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is only one problem with this quote: Martin Luther King, Jr. never said it. As Megan McArdle and Erik Haugsjaa point out, the second part of the quote is from Dr. King’s 1963 Strength to Love, but the first sentence isn’t part of the original quote. It’s fake. Someone added it to the King quote to make it relevant to Osama bin Laden’s death.

MLK 'Strength to Love' on Google Books

The actual quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'Strength to Love' as demonstrated in Google Books. Note the first part of the quotation was not written by Dr. King.

The viral nature of this quote demonstrates how people will believe whatever they read if it fits their preconceived notions, especially when it is attributed to a well-respected authority or personality. This is precisely how we got the Apocrypha (the books that didn’t make it into the Bible), and a number of the books that actually did make it into the biblical canon. Someone writes something, it sounds like something someone authoritative would say, the quote or book is attributed to said authority, people read it, believe it, and pass it on. (Recommended reading: Forged by Bart Ehrman.)

It’s how we got the fake Bin Laden death photos, it’s how we got the MLK quote, and it’s how we got many of the books of the Bible (i.e., some letters attributed to Paul, all 4 Gospels, many of the pastoral letters, the Apocrypha, etc.).

What’s a shame in the modern age is that it’s actually quite easy to fact check. Unfortunately, people don’t. They just parrot misinformation without citations because they like the way it sounds. It reiterates the need for readers to check their facts, and for authors to cite their sources.

In the words of Al Gore, “This is not why I invented the internet.”1

1Al Gore did not make this statement.

UPDATE: See the Salon.com article by Drew Grant, who attributes the quote to a tweet from Penn Jillette, who got it on Facebook from someone named Jessica Dovey. A screenshot of Dovey’s Facebook message shows that she did, in fact, offset MLK’s quote from her own comments. So Penn (apparently) mis-attributed the first portion to Dr. King. Penn acknowledged his mistake, but not before it went viral.

This demonstrates that there are usually two attributions needed for a saying to become ‘authoritative’: attribution to a recognized respected authority, and the propagation by another respected/beloved figure. It also demonstrates a point that Bart Ehrman and his teacher, Bruce Metzger, both make: not all edits and changes are intentional. Like Penn in this case, it was an honest mistake, which, to his credit, he immediately corrected.

Excellent work Drew!!

19 Responses

  1. Love the insight…though I would give the Gospels and letters of Paul a bit more creedence than the Obama corpse photo. Point taken and well made, however.

  2. tim, if you haven’t read it yet, check out ehrman’s forged. the sentiments are nice, but they are forged documents. thanx. -bc

  3. I’ve got an example of where MLK was quotemined in a misleading way.

  4. […] Bob Cargill tells which part, and explains how the whole thing is relevant to how we got the Apocrypha. Share this: Digg this postRecommend on FacebookBuzz it upTweet about itSubscribe to the comments on this postTell a friend This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← John and Christology […]

  5. I saw the quote on a facebook profile and, I confess, assumed its authenticity. Thankfully, I didn’t pass it on.

    Tim – I assume (and hope) you meant Osama corpse photo, right?

  6. This idea crossed my mind last night, as I was reading about the MLK quote and also because I read this Matt Taibbi article http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/mailbag-why-i-cant-vote-for-ron-paul-20110502
    In it, he discusses the infamous Ron Paul newsletters from the eighties and nineties, “which are full of paranoid rantings about blacks and gays and communists and prone to lines like ‘Order was only restored [in the L.A. riots] when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’ Paul has denied that he wrote any of the crazy entries in these newsletters, but at best he exercised extremely bad judgment in letting some of these things (how about calling MLK a ‘communist philanderer’?) in there go out under his name.”

  7. Why stop at just the Apocrypha? I think this could be applied to the whole corpus of ancient literature, from Gilgamesh to Genesis to the accounts of St. Genevieve.

  8. Addendum: Just read your last few paragraphs again. Good to see you didn’t stop at the apocrypha. ;-)

  9. even if it is not a real quote, it IS a positive thing to not spread hate. To debunk the statement because of its lack of authenticity, just shows how we have conformed to being hateful and downing of others and positive forward moyion

  10. I think this speaks to the need to find truth within ourselves, and from whatever source crosses our path- a deeper truth than just “who actually did or did not say this [first/ever].” This appended quote (the original MLK statement plus the first phrase) is great- who really cares who said it? Is it any less relevant b/c someone less famous than MLK said it? (No, says I) Or would *anything* that MLK truly said necessarily be more relevant/true/important? (No again) Thanks to whoever crafted this fake quote; I like it.

  11. brian, i could not disagree more. it is never responsible or good to spread good with lies. the fact of the matter is, dr. king did not say the quote, as good as it may sound or be. i am not saying we should celebrate someone’s death, nor am i saying we should spread hate; you have introduced a false antithesis. what i’m saying is that when you use a lie to spread a truth or something good, the truth of that good thing is undermined by the means by which it came to prominence. if someone gains prominence by telling lies, their credibility is undermined by the lies they told to get there, no matter how good they may be.

    it is never good to spread truth with lies. it’s a tactic that i’ve addressed before with a xn group that deliberately lied about finding noah’s ark to spread their message about jesus. their excuse was that it’s ok to lie if it gets a good message out. they fail to realize that their lies undermine their message to those hearing it.

  12. no, it’s not any less true, but it most likely doesn’t gain traction without dr. king’s name attached. falsely attributing it to someone of prominence potentially undermines the truth of the statement.

  13. thanx for this. i’ll add as an update. -bc

  14. […] fake martin luther king, jr. quote demonstrates how we got the apocrypha There is a beautiful quote going around the internet. It reads: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, […] […]

  15. Perhaps you should do a little bit more research yourself. Upon just a few clicks, I discovered that the first part of this quote was in fact part of someone’s status on Facebook in which she quoted MLK in the second part of her status. But the first sentence, she was saying from her own perspective. So in saying, “It’s fake. Someone added it to the King quote to make it relevant to Osama bin Laden’s death.” is a bit misguided, don’t you think? I’m glad I didn’t just take your word for it and did the research on my own, like you suggested. She wasn’t misquoting MLK, she made her own statement and used the MLK quote to back it up.

  16. “The problem with internet quotes and statistics is that often times, they’re wrongfully believed to be real.” ~Abraham Lincoln

  17. Bob,
    The expansion of your comments by the Salon.com article and Ms. Yarde’s post above makes another point. This is the same process by which manuscript copies expand to include material not in the original. It is also a means by which many of the additions in the Targums came about. It is nice to see the process continuing in this “modern” world.

  18. paul, agreed. very good point. we can call it the ‘targum twitter.’ -bc

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