You wouldn't know it from the reverence he now receives on his birthday and during Black History Month, but when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died, 75 percent of Americans disapproved of him and 55 percent of African-Americans did, too.
King's base had abandoned him. Pastors wouldn't allow him to speak at their churches. Donations had dried up.
What happened? It's what happens sometimes in civic leadership when someone decides to speak from the heart and hold relentlessly to purpose — you unleash a storm.
Many people believe his popularity slide began with his explosive speech titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at Riverside Church in New York City. King fumed over heavy, government war investment that had caused government divestment in social programs.
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," King said in the speech, delivered one year to the day before his death.
Reaction to the speech returned like enemy fire.
The Washington Post said King had "diminished his utility to his cause, his country, his people." Life magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." President Johnson felt betrayed, after having pushed through civil rights legislation King had sought.
According to a documentary by PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley, even King's board at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization he founded, issued a statement denouncing the speech.
Despite the public-approval free fall, King didn't hide; he doubled down.
In a sermon delivered two months before his death, King said America's quest for dominance had led it down the soul-poisoning path of war.
"I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.... God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war," he said. "We've committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it."
I'm guessing those words didn't boost his popularity.
But civic leadership isn't about popularity.
It is about, we believe at the Kansas Leadership Center, holding relentlessly to purpose even if you must to do it alone. It means speaking from the heart, especially about things people perhaps don't want to hear but may need to hear. It means disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.
King did these things well.
Perhaps that's why the polls buried him well before he died.
Yet when he died, much was forgiven and forgotten. Riots exploded across the country, and today we fill convention centers celebrating his birthday.
And though we don't remember all of the particulars — the push back and the polls — we do remember him because he spoke from his heart and embraced his purpose.