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