Knowledge Questions: How is history shaped by our present beliefs? To what extent can we accurately construct knowledge of the past? How do we decide what is an “accurate” history?
Below are three articles discussing the different ways and the consequences of how Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today. Each shares ideas about the fact that many times our memories of the past and our histories are created to serve our current agendas. For some, history is not about a sincere desire to accurately understand or make meaning of the past. When we interpret the words and memories of our historical figures, can we say that one interpretation is better than another?
King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King Jr’s: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.
The Consequences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Canonization
Pence, of course, is doing only what the current version of the holiday demands. Across the ideological spectrum, politicians must seek to fit themselves under the aegis of the Kingian legacy. That means a contingent of Americans who surely oppose the positions King held in his life are compelled to contort him into something friendly. Columns must wield King to attack everything from “identity politics” to the very act of “politicizing” King’s life itself. Democratic presidential hopefuls must employ King in order to make the case that each of their disparate platforms is the natural heir to his legacy. The sound bites evoking King are stretched like skin over the bones of existing debate. The figure celebrated looks nothing like the leader who lived—and who was killed—but like a granite-chiseled modern founding father, a collection of axioms by which our age is defined.
The War Over King’s Legacy
So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.–the integrationist preacher of the summer of 1963 or the leftist activist of the spring of 1968? The question is not just academic. Its competing answers shed light on enduring–and urgent–tensions between white and black America over race, class and conspiracy. Most whites want King to be a warm civic memory, an example of the triumph of good over evil. For many African-Americans, however, the sanitizing of King’s legacy, and suspicions about a plot to kill him, are yet another example of how larger forces–including the government that so long enslaved them-hijack their history and conspire against them. In a strange way, the war over King’s legacy is a sepia-toned O.J. trial, and what you believe depends on who you are.