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A few weeks ago, an acquaintance, his young sons and I crossed the street together.  When we reached the other side, the father introduced me to his sons. 

I was impressed with how polite these boys were.  They greeted me and extended their hands to shake mine.  The father told them that I wrote for a newspaper and then said, more to me than to his sons, that I was a “rabble-rouser.” 

Hmm, I thought.  I’m not sure I like that label.  He then added that if this were a different era, I would be called a “muckraker.” 

Whoa!  I’m not sure I like that label either. 

Although I felt somewhat offended, I didn’t say anything because of his sons’ presence.  After we parted and I walked down the street alone, I decided not to dwell on the labels. 

However, when I told a friend that I had been referred to as a rabble-rouser or muckraker, she became angry and said I had been insulted. 

“Maybe,” I replied slowly.  When I told another friend, she said I had been complimented, that rabble-rousers and muckrakers were the ones that brought about change.  Since I wavered between feeling insulted or complimented, I decided to look up the terms.

One dictionary defined rabble-rouser as “one who stirs up the masses of people” but gave no value judgment.  Another said a rabble-rouser was “a person who stirs up the passions or prejudices of the public, usually for his or her interests.” 


The term muckraker was said to have been “applied to American journalists, novelists and critics who in the first decade of the 20th century attempted to expose the abuses of business and the corruption in politics. 

The term was used by President T. Roosevelt in a speech in 1906…in reference to a character in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ who could look no way but downward with a muck rake in his hands and was interested only in raking the filth.” (-Columbia Encyclopedia)

So, should the late Dr. Martin Luther King be called a rabble-rouser or muckraker?  Maybe.  It probably depends on one’s comfort level with the terms. 

Certainly, Dr. King had the courage and willingness to speak out against inequities in the U.S.A., which led to changes that improved the lives of many Americans. 

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” (-from Dr. King’s 1968 sermon about two months before he was assassinated) 

In recognition of his courage, Dr. King’s birthday is honored and celebrated, this year on January 20.  I’m sure most celebrants will only care to label him as a “freedom fighter.” 

The physician and NASA astronaut Mae Jemison was quoted as saying that Dr. King inspired her, that “… when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity and bravery.” 

Below are some quotes that also support the need to speak out against inequality, corruption and other wrongs.  Silence does not bring about change. 

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (-Dr. King) 

 “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (-Dr. King)

“Silence is the real crime against humanity.” (-Nadezhda Mandelstam, author, 1899-1980)

“My sitting here now is the result of people, black people, and people of good conscience in particular, fighting a struggle in the real world, changing the real attitudes and the real social situation.” (-Danny Glover, actor, 1948, African American)

The person who has been a slave from birth does not value rebellion. (-Yoruba of West Africa)

A belated Happy Birthday to Rev. Dr. King whose birthday was Jan. 15.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...