Civil War, Civil Rights, and Thoughts on the MLK National Memorial

In late August 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and conjured the Union war leader in envisioning a new America:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

King delivered this landmark speech exactly one century after Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and he rightly imagined the great social questions of his age to be part of a continuum of struggle dating back to the Civil War.  King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement, has been inextricably connected to the national memory of Lincoln, emancipation, and the Civil War ever since.  But as we all know the “long night” to which King alluded continued for African Americans after 1865 and into the twentieth century as a national backlash largely undercut the Civil War’s radical achievements.  National white supremacy and the acceleration of industrial capitalism facilitated not only a retreat from Reconstruction, but also political corruption, the exploitation of the working class, and Jim Crow culture, the residue of which is still blights our national social and economic scene.

This Sunday in late August 2011 the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will be dedicated in Washington, D.C. on the forty-eighth anniversary of King’s celebrated and now-familiar speech.  Situated in West Potomac Park near the Tidal Basin, the event is expected to be a media and public frenzy.  President Obama will provide his obligatory sound byte; popular musical acts will perform.  The much-hyped buildup to the dedication led me to consider briefly the connections between the Civil War, civil rights, and our current national crises (recall that labor and employment were the occasion for King’s 1963 speech).  Moreover, I asked myself what historians of the Middle Period might take away from the Martin Luther King Memorial sanctification.  Where does it fit into our national trajectory of historical commemoration, collective memory, and the legacy of the Civil War?

For those who don’t know, the King Memorial has been a long-debated project, finally commissioned by Congress and formalized in the late 1990s and 2000s.  Like so many works of civic art it has also been surrounded by controversy: it was sculpted in Communist China by a Chinese artist (Lei Yixin) who once sculpted Mao Zedong, the likeness has been deemed too confrontational, the size and scope too triumphalist and monumental (gender historians will no doubt debate this issue).  Perhaps most striking, however, is the fact that the 30-foot high sculpture is the only national monuments on or near the Mall that does not commemorate a United States president, a war, or an individual associated with war-making.  Many, including the Lincoln, Grant, and Roosevelt monuments, serve all three purposes.  It is also the first monument in the Mall-Basin area to depict a non-Caucasian.  Although to some the National Mall is in danger of becoming a Soviet-style “monument park,” the King Monument – depicting a civilian and, presumably, a message of peace through non-violence – represents in some ways a change in the direction of official American memory-making (“official” memory being something of a disquieting concept in itself).  Of course the type of “high intensity” public memory the King Memorial represents would not have been conceivable without the Civil Rights Movement, which, along with anti-Vietnam War movement, ushered in the new social history and challenged longstanding assumptions regarding official American memory, leading ultimately to more reflective federally sponsored works such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and, more recently, Ed Hamilton’s African-American Civil War Memorial (which stands in stark contrast to the re-encoded plantation racial hierarchy of Thomas Ball’s Freedman’s Memorial).  At any rate the King Memorial will no doubt serve as an emotionally compelling reminder of national racial progress and is significant because its very inception is not likely to be, as it once would have been, a source of national disunity or impede, to borrow a phrase from historian Merle Curti, the national “construction of patriotism.”

Still, some aspects of official American memory (and the national mythmaking with which it converges) aren’t likely to change any time soon.  I haven’t yet visited the monument (it opened three days ago), but I expect that it, like so much of King’s public memory, will focus on only parts of King’s message, such as non-violence and equal opportunity, and downplay some of the specifics within his goals of social and economic justice.  In addition to trumpeting his well-known statements about racial equality, by the mid-1960s King came also to question the nature of capitalism and believed that war, racism, and poverty all had roots within the economic system.  As Coretta Scott King later explained, her husband knew that “the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice . . . the contrast of wealth between the haves and the have-nots.”  The fact that King’s aims had shifted and his radicalism had much intensified by 1965 will likely take a back seat to the (presently) more benign messages of equal opportunity, anti racial discrimination, or the American Dream.  If the King Memorial functions as historical commemoration normally does, the American public will receive a version of King the establishment wants it to remember, which is to say it will receive a limited, anti-problematic version that projects a facade of national unity.  According to the Memorial’s website, although the project was “not designed to be experienced in a single way with one single message, but rather it is to have a broad accessibility,” King’s words on the inscription wall are also drawn from his “most timeless and universal messages.”  Though the fourteen inscriptions it depicts might indeed deal expressly with King’s definition of justice or even provide a fair portrait of King’s message by the end of his life (the exact “timeless and universal messages” are not available on the website), too often historic commemoration flattens multiple historical dimensions in the name of personal profit, political expediency, or national mythology.

Though customary in public commemoration, this subtle, specific form of whitewashing (if this is in fact what is taking place) is unfortunate because, in the case of King, his message of direct justice is still urgent.  Vast discrepancies in income, unemployment, housing, incarceration rates, and access to health and child care and education still plague the black community.  The political color line is still intact too, as African Americans remain alienated from the democratic process and their political leadership continues to be shockingly underrepresented.  There is not one black senator in the 112th Congress.  As president of the NAACP Benjamin Todd Jealous observed regarding the King Memorial, “These are the best of times and these are the worst of times. We have our first black president. We have our first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And yet at the same time, poverty is at Depression-era levels. Homeownership is down. Foreclosures are up.  HIV rates among black and brown youth are way too high … and high school graduation rates are way too low.”  In many ways the Emancipation Proclamation is still, to use King’s analogy, an unsigned promissory note.

With the opening of historical centers and cultural offerings such as D.C.’s Civil War to Civil Rights Trail, Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati – with its exhibits on slavery and various aspects of Jim Crowism – and the increasing emphasis on the Civil War’s causes and aftermath at NPS and other interpretive sites, America’s official or national public memory is in some ways catching up with its old and diffuse vernacular memory (often that of activists and local or marginalized communities) and working to correct what James W. Loewen terms our American “landscape of denial.”   Still, “official” American public memory remains criminally exclusive, as the most cursory trek around the National Mall reveals.  This sentimentalizing or minimizing of the past’s less appealing or sometimes brutal or radical aspects makes history not only more homogeneous and palatable (and often profitable), but also tends to reinforce the dominant political values of the nation-state and fits the past into a patriotic narrative of national progress that, while comforting to some, skews and distorts its richness and complexity.  Although Americans commend other societies for addressing the most uncomfortable aspects of their past (memorializing concentration camps in Germany or apartheid in South Africa), certain events, people, movements, and ideas become obscured or deleted on the American landscape, part of a national repression of the anti-patriotic.  Indeed, America’s race, class, and gender inequalities aren’t only statistically evident, they are literally encoded into our landscape.  Moreover, it will always seem “natural” for certain groups to hold disproportionate sway in our society so long as they and not others appear on the tops of statues.  This trend of deletion and selectivity also has the effect of minimizing contemporary social problems, particularly those that are most persistent and linked to historic wrongs.  Until we remember in full the victims of national “progress” – for Civil War interpretation this includes frank discussion about the causation and continuity associated with slavery, white supremacy, and racism – King’s message of justice will remain that much further out of reach.  So, if there is one message those with an interest in the Civil War might take away from this weekend’s dedication it is this: in this the sesquicentennial year of the beginning of the Civil War, the dedication of a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall represents a true and long overdue shift in the trajectory of “official” American commemoration.  Its inauguration, however, is far from a capstone or crowning achievement in either national memory-making or social progress.  In the words of scholar Vincent Harding, “Dead men make convenient heroes. It is easier to build monuments than to build a better world.”

Authored by Matthew Stanley

14 Responses to Civil War, Civil Rights, and Thoughts on the MLK National Memorial

  1. Thanks, Kris. Speaking of triumphal and victim-oriented commemoration on the Mall, I feel like I should have mentioned the National Museum of the American Indian (though I felt like this was largely a collection of material culture) and the Holocaust Memorial Museum (actually Americans are good at remembering the Holocaust (someone else’s atrocity) probably because it could be financed here and they had a role in stopping it). However, both of these sites, while rewarding in different ways, are low intensity vectors of memory – the Holocaust happened in Europe of course and, to me, the Museum of the American Indian is a neat but nearly incoherent hodge-podge of stuff that really hasn’t found an interpretive groove.

    I know there are small memorials at some of the Japanese-American internment sites (again, mostly vernacular) and it was definitely nice to see the NPS dedicate the Sand Creek site a few years ago. I’d like to see a similar form of interpretation at Charleston or Davis Bend or Haymarket or Homestead or Ludlow or Kent State (or take your pick) as a way to facilitate national discussion and level with the fact that slavery, genocide, anti-labor violence, industrial disasters, etc. weren’t peripheral to the American experience, but absolutely central to it. At any rate, I don’t expect any of these themes to get anything resembling equal national space with presidents and “good wars”. Americans, like most societies, simply aren’t very good about commemorating their own brutalities, either on others or their own people.

    Which reminds me, have you been to Fort Pillow? Neat place, but hard to get to. And I heard they have recently re-worked their interpretation. Not sure if that’s true.

  2. Matt,

    I can’t agree more with the Native American Museum. I really thought they could do something special with it. In the end it is a massive collection of “stuff” with no story. It is tough to see if they are actually attempting to get at a story or what they are up to.

    I have not made it to Fort Pillow. It’s great if they did rework the interp. There is so much new material out there. The memory and history all seemed to be turned on its ear.


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  4. Nice piece, Matt. I’ve been thinking a lot about this connection, particularly in light of David Blight’s upcoming book, which looks at the Civil War in the era of Civil Rights. Thanks for the excellent food for thought.

  5. I think it is natural to a great extent and even unavoidable in extolling the virtues of a leader to be selective. We don’t trot out a person’s personal foibles of course, but more than that we aren’t required to extol all the views they held. Monuments bring out some aspects of leaders, and not others. That’s what they are supposed to do. Now we may question the choices made, but we can’t question that choices were made. A monument isn’t a biography.

    On the choices made, I’m not at all surprised that King’s anti-capitalism and late “radicalism” were omitted, and I actually think it was wise. The obvious reason is that it would muddy the “equal opportunity, anti racial discrimination, or the American Dream”. But it is more than that. The truth is that the two messages are completely and entirely *separable*. One does not entail the other, or vice-versa. Anti-capitalistic views aren’t any more just than any others, and could well be less if history is any guide. It was apparently the later King’s belief that it would be a solution to the problem, but whether it would be or not is a separate question. I don’t think it would do justice to King’s legacy to link the two in a monument. It would politicize the more important message.

    Now if some group wants to put up a separate monument somewhere else and extol his other beliefs that is fine, but I don’t think it was a mistake to leave out his political views in the major monument to him in DC. Monuments to great leaders tend to be de-politicized as much as possible, and many of them would be very happy about this since many political views become entirely discredited with time. Like I said, a monument isn’t a biography; art is about choices and aspects.

  6. Selectivity is present in all forms of commemoration, sure, particularly monuments (which contain few words). But that selectivity is always calculated and normally political. Deletion is central to the process of memory-making. And people being commemorated are always, as you say, “depoliticized,” but that de-politicizing is done for political reasons. This of course only serves to muddle and distort the history, of course, but you’re correct in that the King Memorial is, at the end of the day, a work of art (politicized art), not history. Monuments aren’t meant to inform (they’re often intentionally inaccurate). They are meant to evoke an emotion (a sense of unity, a political idea, a myth). And that’s why historians find commemoration so darn frustrating.

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that King’s questioning of capitalism is any more or less just than any of his other planks, but it was central to his message. Agree or disagree with his thought process, by about 1965 King did not view racial justice and economic justice as separate issues, referring to them as, among other things, the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” He saw these issues as absolutely linked and felt you couldn’t discuss, say, racial discrimination without addressing economic inequality. This isn’t a case of King having some beliefs and “other” beliefs. They were all deeply interconnected, as King saw it. To delete part of that message is a less than honest representation of the man and his vision. If we must have a King Memorial, I’d prefer a representation that is as full as possible in presenting who King was, not cherry picked to project only what the monument’s sponsors want him to be (if that is indeed what is taking place).

    And I’m certainly not surprised that the parts of King’s message that are perceived today as radical are normally omitted either. My broader point was that this type of “official” commemoration normally projects a watered down (and sometimes wholly inaccurate) version of a person, place, or event. Jefferson as a political mind, but not as a slaveholder. Grant as a savior of the Union, but not as a leader navigating the thorny issues of Reconstruction. Fort Pillow as a Confederate victory, but not a massacre. The distortions and deletions of one generation imprisons the minds of those generations who follow (see Lost Cause commemoration as only one example in American history). Presenting the Civil Rights Movement as perhaps more benign than it actually was is a great disservice to both future generations and anyone interested in an honest understanding of the past. As for King, both he and his message were inherently political, clearly. If you write out the politics, you lose the man and the movement. And this is why monuments normally reveal far more about the people who erect them than they do about the person being commemorated.

  7. Was King’s questioning of capitalism greater at the end of his life than the beginning? I got that impression, but I don’t know for sure. If so, it seems to me there may be more to this story than you’re allowing. But my central point, and I admit it wasn’t clear as it could be, is that the two ideas are separable and that ideas must stand on their own. I argue with people all the time that this or that great person in both our minds was very wrong on one of the ideas he promoted. The typical response is some sort of bafflement that a great man could be wrong on some very important things. As if it would diminish his greatness to be wrong about something not widely understood to be a part of what made him great. I care too much about the importance of ideas to give anyone a pass on bad ideas. And of course, those great men who got very little wrong even under all the pressure to do so are all the more esteemed in my mind.

    Monuments often do say more about the persons erecting them, especially those cases where we’d agree there is “whitewashing” going on as their is sometimes, but let’s not overlook the fact that even in doing so monuments as often say something about the reality in their choices. The reality of better and worse ideas. Monuments educate, but I think you’re putting too much on their usefulness for that in any more full sense. That is what books are for, and if someone is dull enough to get their history from monuments there isn’t much hope for any full sense of historical understanding. Monuments can point out the subjects of study, and the few ways of greatness that are widely recognized. It will always be up to the more serious person to develop a more full understanding by the other traditional ways. If in time a lesser-known aspect of a person is come to be understood and appreciated, future monuments may point out these aspects. I would love to know more about King’s anti-capitalism, and how he came to it, but just mentioning it was a feature of his later thinking doesn’t seem to me sufficient to call his monument lacking. I don’t think this is in any way analogous to the case of Fort Pillow and not mentioning that is was a massacre. That is clearly a case of whitewashing and educating wrongly. What happened at Fort Pillow is essential to why we care at all about it, unlike with King. I don’t think that it was a massacre is truly separable from the battle, and if we want to remember it at all I think it a grievous error to obscure what happened. It would make sense for some monuments of King to show certain differing aspects, but I don’t see the value of having multiple monuments of Fort Pillow. That would be extremely unnatural and dishonest in ways that not showing the economic or political views of a great man is not.

  8. I wouldn’t call King an anti-capitalist, per se, though socialists have certainly tried to appropriate him (and to some extent that appropriation is justifiable). He certainly encouraged a healthy questioning of the capitalist system and, as I said, believed it was linked to racism, poverty, and war. But to argue that such an idea shouldn’t be commemorated as a central part of the man and his message because the idea matured at the end of his life is simply wrongheaded. It’s tantamount to saying that Lincoln’s racial consciousness wasn’t central to the man and his beliefs because his understanding of black people as human beings was part of a process that mostly matured in the last years of his life. So what if King didn’t publicly question the relationship between capitalism, racism, and poverty between 1929 and 1964? By 1965 it was crucial to his message and movement. Similarly, so what if Lincoln didn’t publicly question the legality of slavery where it existed and the inferiority of blacks between 1809 and 1862-65? To have a discussion — any honest discussion, even in the form of a monument — about Lincoln without a recognition of that transition would be bad history, plain and simple. The same is true of King.

    Now, I do agree that historians and many others don’t (and obviously shouldn’t) get their history from monuments, but other people absolutely do and often in very subconscious ways. Most Americans don’t read history books. Overwhelmingly, Americans construct what they know about the past from a sample of symbols, speeches, words, images, slogans, songs, myths, propaganda, and cultural displays. George Washington isn’t on the dollar arbitrarily, to give one example, he was placed on the dollar to promote part of a national narrative and signify a hierarchy of ideas and leaders. That’s the use value of commemoration.

    So, to conclude, as a historian I have less interest in deciding which of King’s ideas are good and which are bad than in understanding which ideas were central to the message and the man. If you want to erect a monument to what you deem a good idea, then erect a monument to that idea. If you must erect a Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., then the man and his vision should be displayed in as many dimensions as possible. Therefore, I must respectfully disagree that a central tenet of King’s message (economic justice) should be deleted simply because some people are uncomfortable with it, because it disrupts the status quo, or because they find it in some way objectionable (plenty of folks surely find his message of racial equality objectionable too — hardly grounds for deletion). To do so is ahistorical and it embodies the type of political selectivity that draws the ire (and endless fascination) of historians regarding public commemoration and national myth-making.

  9. Hold on a minute. I’m not arguing that “an idea shouldn’t be commemorated as a central part of the man and his message because the idea matured at the end of his life.” I have merely said that your argument that leaving out an idea in the representation of someone’s monument isn’t necessarily problematic, certainly not one acquired late in life. Yours is the strong claim, not mine.

    And great men are not so easily separated from their ideas as you suppose. Great men that are commemorated in DC, and perhaps all great men, represent ideas and that’s why they are known to us as great men. As I’ve said, or at least strongly hinted, one can’t avoid the question of how central the supporting idea was to the one a great person is known for, and it is more problematic to avoid the judgement by saying “well he thought so” than you think. Some great men had very bizarre ideas, and we can be glad their monuments don’t reflect such non-essential ideas. All I’ve said was that monuments make judgements about what to portray, and the decision to omit his late anti-capitalism isn’t as problematic as you let on. His family was probably pleased.

    It would be a wonderful irony however, if the family actually thought as you do that his views on capitalism should have been incorporated¸ especially since they extracted upwards of a million dollars in licensing fees from the foundation to put the statue up. It’s pretty outrageous.

  10. Economic justice was not just “an idea” King had, it was a central idea, one he viewed as fundamentally inseparable from issues of race and war. He saw civil rights and economic rights as absolutely linked. Of course I view the exclusion of such a central idea as problematic and ahistorical, if that is in fact what is happening. It’s not as if the builders omitted that King really liked basketball (which he did).

    Not sure I follow your second paragraph, but again, I wouldn’t necessarily deem King “anti-capitalist,” as he was not, to my knowledge, opposed to the capitalist system of economic relations in and of itself (but doesn’t the fact that so many people, yourself included, seem either somewhat uninformed of or totally oblivious to King’s concept of economic justice — which was both crucial to and interconnected with his other messages — evidence enough that it has indeed been suppressed at the public level and should perhaps be brought to light as to be understood?)

    I don’t presume to know what his family thinks.

    Again, agree to respectfully disagree about a few issues. Thanks for the posts, Mark.

  11. “He saw civil rights and economic rights as absolutely linked.”

    As do I. That isn’t the matter of our disagreement. I’m confused about certain of his ideas, but I’m aware of my confusion and why. I’ll get there in due time. I read probably 200 books a year (thanks to a wonderful interlibrary loan system,) and the fact how central were his ideas in question just yet aren’t a top priority for me because they shouldn’t be. All in due time.

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