Public Memory and King

For one, in this photo King is praying. I think this is poignant since he was a minister, and since religion and religious imagery were so important to the basis of his ideas and the wording of his speeches. Further, I selected this image because in it, King looks tired or sad or vulnerable. I don’t know the context of the photo, but it reminded me of Brian Ward talking about King’s mental state from sixty-six until his assassination in nineteen sixty-eight. Ward says:

“I think we tend to freeze Martin Lurther King in time. We think of him as someone who always knew what he was going to do next, who always had the answers, who was very confident about his role in the movement. And that’s really not what King was like in late sixty-six through to his death in April of nineteen sixty-eight.He was wracked with doubts about his own ability to find new ways forward for the African American freedom struggle….”

I can only imagine the intense pressure and tiredness he experienced. In oral histories I’ve read from feminist organizers in the South, in the new Hulu historical drama Mrs. America, and from various people on twitter, I’ve read that being an organizer or a long-term leader of social change takes a huge toll on people and usually, people can only handle being really involved for a few years before they are drained and have to take a back seat. I think this perspective makes King’s constant dedication, constant fighting, and constantly being at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and other political and social campaigns even more admirable.

At the same time, it’s sad. It’s sad that in America,  there are such deep inequities and so much discrimination against Black folks and other People of Color. It’s sad that we don’t have a universal basic income. It’s sad that people have to suffer through poverty when the U.S. is such a wealthy country. It’s sad that so much of this wealth was obtained from colonialism and imperialism. It’s sad that we spend billions on war rather than the welfare of our people. “It’s sad” is such an understatement. But King addressed all of these things, fought against all of these things, worked to understand all of these things, and so much more. And he met so much resistance, so much hatred, so much pain. It’s also sad that so much pressure was put on one man. It makes me want to learn to speak, to stop fearing speaking, to learn how to be a better ally and friend and person with love.

Something that struck me about several of King’s sermons, including “Where Do We Go from Here?” and “Time to Break Silence” is that King explains history, giving a backdrop to how we got here. In “Time to Break Silence,” King says:

“We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history” (231).

At the end of this quote, King notes that:

“religious leaders have chosen to move … to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.” He focuses on the “reading of history” as a way to make people more conscious, more likely to rebel against what King addresses as the “apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world” (231). 

Also within this speech, King gives a backdrop of the history of the Vietnam War, including saying, “For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in the abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam” (235). King’s brief history explanation of the Vietnam was more than I ever received in an American history class, and it completely dispelled some pervasive ideas taught in some American classrooms about the Vietnam War. For example, I remember being told “no one won,” and I remember learning about the Tet Offensive as a major point where American public opinion shifted further away from the war. I also remember being told by my teacher that the Vietnam War was a war against communism. King’s speech very much reframes the narrative around the war, showing how America was largely interested in its own neocolonial power and wealth. 

This then makes me think again of Dr. Calinda Lee’s quote, which I also brought up in my last blog post, “There is no such thing as a partial truth. You tell the whole story as fully and completely and accurately as you can or maybe walk away from the whole thing.” Through King telling history in his sermons, he helps create a more full history, which helps to address the nationalistic and patriotic narratives, and other partial narratives, that could be heard from politicians, the news media, and/or in schools. 

Further, in the About South episode with Brian Ward, Ward speaks on history and public memory, “However, my great fear is that once you put up the statue to king, which has dutifully happened, and the plaque to Frederick Douglas, which again, has happened, then actually, it’s not embedded in the consciousness of the community” (29:42) Ward goes on to explain that the artifact alone loses significance if there is not larger public remembrance and understanding of what that artifact means. 

Widespread, sustained remembrance creates changing public attitudes and changing public policy. As I was reading King’s sermons, I was angry. I was angry because so many things King talks about, are still problems today. Many of the solutions King possessed in “Where Do We Go From Here?” are ideas discussed today, but they haven’t been implemented.  

In “Where Do We Go From Here?” King says:

“Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now,” again with this line, he points out the importance of history. He continues, “When the constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxpayers and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites” (245).

He then cites examples of inequities between Black and White people in America, which are still accurate today, and which reminded me of the terrifying and horrible statistics around how unequal the effects of the Coronavirus are on Black Americans. 

Later King writes, “John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth” (248). This reminded me of a statistic I read a few months ago; that 40% of our income taxes go to the military. Forty percent. As King says, do not tell me we can not afford universal healthcare, that we can not afford “a guaranteed annual income,” that we can not afford universal childcare, and more. when so much money goes to imperialistic actions that I do not support or want to monetarily support. 

So I was angry. I was angry because I wish in K-12 we read these sermon in addition to “I Have a Dream.” And I wish we read and learned about so many other progressive folks and movements from the fifties, sixties, and seventies and everywhere before and after and in between. I say “the fifties, sixties, and seventies and everywhere before and after and in between” because I remember Dr. Lee mentions in About South how Southern Black history usually jumps from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, creating an idea that there were not Black activists in the time and space between that, fighting for their civil rights.

But there were. And their stories are impactful and important and interesting. Imagine how different the political and social landscape would look today if we learned about these histories, these narratives: if they were common in the public memory.

 

Works Cited

Lee, Calinda (guest). “To Atlanta, With Love.” About South, Soundcloud, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/as-s04e10-to-atlanta-with-love

King Jr., Martin Luther. “A Time to Break Silence.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 231-244. 

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Where Do We Go from Here?” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 245- 252. 

Ward, Brian (guest). “King, 1967.” About South, Soundcloud, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/s04-episode-2-king-1967. 

 

Photo Credit: 

Blog post by Shancia Jarrett: http://www.sainthildashouse.org/blog/2015/1/19/prepare-ye-the-way-jesus-moving-in-the-life-of-martin-luther-king-jr-a-man-seeking-justice

 

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