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See book coverage and excerpts from The Emancipator.

Tell the truth about Dr. King

In her recently published book, a sociologist spotlights the dangers of sanitizing the slain leader’s legacy

The Emancipator

The following are excerpts from Hajar Yazdiha’s “The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement,” available now.

On a humid day in late August 2010, right-wing Tea Party activist and Fox News television host Glenn Beck held a rally to “restore honor” at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the forty-seventh anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington, and Beck stood on the steps where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech nearly five decades prior. In the months leading up to the rally, Beck used his television show to drive home the undeniable connection between the historic backdrop of the rally and the Tea Party’s mission to safeguard American values, threatened by minority claims to “special rights.” In this view, White Americans were the new victims under the [Barack] Obama presidency, an idea Beck repeatedly espoused as when he warned viewers, “This president [Obama] I think has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for White people and the White culture . . . this guy is, I believe, a racist.”

Earlier that spring Beck had proclaimed to his viewers, “We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights. Equal rights. Justice. Equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice, but equal justice. We are the inheritors and the protectors of the civil rights movement.” Several days later, Beck warned viewers that King’s vision had been “perverted,” but he assured his audience that he planned to “pick up Martin Luther King’s dream” and to “restore it and to finish it.”

He went on to declare, “We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights movement. We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place.”

Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that social movements “[back] their innovations by reference to a ‘people’s past,’ . . . to traditions of revolution . . . and to [their] own heroes and martyrs.” Yet Dr. King was not always a “hero and martyr” for conservatives. Just thirty years earlier, there were spirited congressional battles around whether to designate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. Conservatives denounced King as a “communist traitor” and made public his alleged extramarital affairs to sully his reputation and question his morality. They declared King an unworthy figure for national celebration and commemoration. Although President Reagan signed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday into existence in 1983, statewide battles over the King holiday lasted into the 1990s. In many states like Alabama and Mississippi, the concession toward the King holiday came only with an agreement to merge the holiday with observances of Confederate “heroes” like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. South Carolina was the last state to approve a paid King holiday, in the year 2000.

Yet just ten years later, Glenn Beck, a brazenly radical conservative, would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to “reclaim” King’s dream for the Tea Party. The next month, Tea Party activists swept the primary elections, and over the next few years they moved the Republican Party irrevocably to the right.

How did the collective memory of the civil rights movement, of Dr. King, become a ready-made political strategy for mobilization by groups with divergent, even antithetical aims? More importantly, what are the consequences of these (mis)uses of collective memory? How does misremembering the past matter for contemporary politics, and how does it shape the direction of our collective future?

At first glance, perhaps the Tea Party movement’s invocations of Dr. King do not seem all that surprising. After all, scholars have shown that since the civil rights era of the 1960s, all sorts of groups including women, Latinos, Asians, the disabled, and LGBTQ coalitions have used memories of the civil rights movement to make claims to inclusion and equality.

More generally, the memory of Black Americans joining with kindhearted White Americans, mobilizing for and achieving legal recognition, has become central to the story of “who we are” as Americans, a shining beacon of the promise of American democracy. Dr. King is mythologized as the moral compass of American identity, reminding us of an unrelenting march forward, where “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

However, increasingly since the 1980s, right-wing, majority-White social movements from the gun rights and family values coalitions to nativist, White supremacist movements have reshaped and deployed the collective memory of the civil rights movement to claim that they are the new minorities fighting for their rights. In these invocations, gun rights activists are the new Rosa Parks, anti-abortion activists are freedom riders, and anti-gay groups are protecting Dr. King’s Christian vision.

These misuses of the past are not merely rhetorical; these strategies have powerful effects. As mobilizing groups remake a collective memory toward competing political ends, they generate new interpretations of the past that take on a life of their own. The proliferation of these interpretations of history, over time, changes the collective memory itself, shaping the way we make sense of the present and the way we direct action toward the future.

Why does it matter that the collective memory of the civil rights movement is remembered in this selective way? After all, collective memories generate a shared identity and connect us in a common narrative of our collective past. Why shouldn’t the civil rights movement be remembered through ideals of unity, peace, and color-blindness?

The danger of a sanitized reading of the past is that this selective memory evades social reality and enables the maintenance of White supremacy.

Hajar Yazdiha is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and a faculty affiliate of its Equity Research Institute (ERI).