Ripley’s Believe It or Not — and the White Sanitization of Racial History

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, Ripley’s Believe It or Not comic strip published the sketch of a smiling Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King as newlyweds The caption of the sketch reads “Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King spent their wedding night in a funeral parlor instead of a hotel.” The sentence is consistent with the strip’s teaser approach. Nonetheless, the reader is left to wonder why the just-married couple opted for a funeral parlor rather than a hotel room. Were they too cheap to get a room? Did they have a fetish for the macabre? Did someone in their immediate families die that day?

Of course, the reason that the newlyweds spent the night at the funeral parlor on the night of their wedding day on June 18, 1953, was that the local hotels in Marion, Alabama, denied them a room. It was through the help of friends including his father, Martin King Sr. who presided over the wedding ceremony in the Scott family’s backyard in nearby Heiberger, that they were allowed to stay in the funeral parlor.

The Ripley entry represents yet another example of the way history is sanitized when it comes to race. For example, we routinely hear about plantation tours that never mention the words “slavery” and “slave” because it is “not part of the official tour.” On the day honoring Dr. King, the Ripley comic strip writer missed an excellent teachable-moment opportunity by failing to tell, as the legendary conservative commentator Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”

Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and Peter Flawn Professor of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is co-author of Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change and co-editor of The International Handbook of the Demography of Race and Ethnicity.