Fake MLK Quote Goes Viral

It seemed so fitting after bin Laden's death. One problem: The civil rights icon didn't actually say it.

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"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."

Those 23 words, attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., were yesterday's Twitter mantra for those of the view that exuberance and partying in the streets in response to a death (any death, even Osama bin Laden's) was morally wrong, creepy or otherwise problematic.

They spread, as things tend do on the good old Internet, like crazy.

It originally seemed that the first person to cite the quote was the famous magician-libertarian Penn Jillette, Salon reported. The problem, as Megan McArdle also pointed out in the Atlantic, was that Martin Luther King never said it. Or anything even close. In fact, the quote from MLK about enemies is:

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Salon tracked down the original source of the quote: a Facebook status message by Jessica Dovey, in which she makes the statement at issue in her own words (not in quotes), immediately followed by a couple of sentences properly attributed to MLK. In this context, it's easy to see how cutting and pasting from that status without paying close attention to where the punctuation began could have accidentally attributed the "thousands of precious lives" part that ended up going viral to King.

That the quote wasn't actually uttered by a legendary rights leader doesn't change the sobering perspective it likely provided to many Americans in the aftermath of bin Laden's death. And while we all got a reality check about the importance of attention to detail and fact checking, it appears that there was no intent to deceive and no real harm done.

Finally, while MLK is undoubtedly rolling over in his grave over plenty of things these days, we don't think this mistaken attribution is one of them.

(While we're on the topics of bin Laden and social networking, read Elev8's list of the most popular Bible passages [or maybe we should call them "alleged Bible passages," since they have not been independently verified by The Root!], quoted on Twitter after his death.)

Read more at Salon.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM