This is the perfect time for a controversy surrounding how to remember Martin Luther King. [Read the story here and read Eugene Robinson’s editorial.] My classes recently finished a book on the Civil Rights Movement and we had a chance to talk in detail about the differences between King and Malcolm X and organizations such as the SCLC, CORE, SNCC, and the Black Panther Party. It is no accident that King and the SCLC remain closer to the hearts of mainstream America than the more "radical" figures – whatever that means. It’s interesting to me that when it comes to our own revolution that we have little trouble handling the more extreme elements in the urban centers such as the Sons of Liberty who engaged in blatant acts of intimidation and destruction against the British. It’s the more conservative elements that often take a back seat in terms of our support and sympathies, but that’s another story.
A close look at the respective trajectories of King and Malcolm suggests that as King was becoming even more confrontational Malcolm was moving in the opposite direction and yet our collective memory has frozen them in time in ways that seem to serve our own purposes as opposed to historical accuracy. I dare say that most white Americans prefer the image of King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial giving his "Dream" speech rather than his later speeches in 1967-68 against the Vietnam War. In the case of the former King spoke for our shared values in contrast with an aggressive posture against America’s foreign policy in Vietnam and a strong sense of betrayal. Even with the images of "Bull" Connor’s dogs in Birmingham and the tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge we still do our best to remember the 1960s as a relatively peaceful transition where morality and justice ultimately prevailed. We prefer our King to be open-armed, if only as a way to reinforce our deeply-held beliefs about the innate goodness of America. We need to believe that slavery and Jim Crow were simply aberrations within the "City Upon a Hill."
Eugene Robinson nails it in today’s column in the Washington Post:
Here’s what is really going on: It’s clear that some people would
prefer to remember King as some sort of paragon of forbearance who,
through suffering and martyrdom, shamed the nation into doing the right
thing. In truth, King was supremely impatient. He was a man of action
who used pressure, not shame, to change the nation. The Montgomery bus
boycott, to cite just one example, was less an act of passive
resistance than a campaign of economic warfare. Yes, he knew that
televised images of black people walking miles to work would help mold
opinion around the world. But he also knew that depriving the bus
companies of needed revenue would hit the Jim Crow system where it
I agree with Robinson that a "choice between Martin Luther King whose saintly martyrdom redeemed the soul of white America and a
defiant Martin Luther King who changed the nation through the force of
his indomitable will, I’ll take the latter." Lei Yixin, one of China’s foremost sculptors, has done an outstanding job depicting King. While a number of people have protested over the hiring of a Chinese sculptor I find it just a bit ironic given that a large number of black Americans in the post-WWI era engaged in political protest against Jim Crow from within various socialist and communist organizations. I highly recommend Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 for more on this. The book will surely win a number of awards next year.
Yixin’s King serves as a reminder that fundamental change throughout this country’s history has rarely taken place without demands and a defiant stand.