America's increasingly fuzzy memory of Martin Luther King

Commemorations of the civil rights hero's life have hollowed out

The Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial in Washington, US. AP
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It's important to note that almost 70 per cent of the population in today’s US were either not alive or were not living in the US during Martin Luther King, Jr’s lifetime. They either hadn’t been born yet or had not yet immigrated to the US.

The majority of Americans have no personal recollection of segregated lunch counters, water fountains and bathrooms, of the dogs and fire hoses that were unleashed on black children simply because they were protesting for equality. And they don't remember the disgusting racist rhetoric used by elected officials – senators, governors and others – seeking to maintain the old, segregated order that King and his colleagues sought to tear down.

Nor do they recall the horrors of the lives wasted in an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the trauma of a nation torn asunder by that conflict. And they do not remember the crisis of wretched poverty that plagued inner cities and rural regions – problems that then president Lyndon B Johnson sought to address with his Great Society programmes, which were tragically stymied by the political, economic and social costs of the war. All of this needs to be remembered in order to understand King in the context of his time.

Last week, the US celebrated Martin Luther King Day – a national holiday dedicated to the life and legacy of that greatest of champions in the 20th century’s struggle for equality and justice. The effort to gain national recognition for MLK Day took 14 years, from when it was first proposed in 1970, until it was finally passed by Congress and signed into law in 1983.

It has long been troubling to many of us who fought to have this day recognised that, instead of remembering King as he really was, the meaning of the day and his memory have been hollowed out. He has been transformed into a fuzzy, feel-good figure, and the struggles for which he gave his life have been largely ignored.

Getting the holiday established was controversial because King himself was controversial. He was a true transformational historical figure who fought against racial discrimination, militarism and economic injustice. During his lifetime, even many of those who supported his struggle to end racial segregation in the southern US and to secure voting rights for black Americans could not accept the broader vision King projected. When he moved the focus of his movement from protesting segregation in the South to confronting discriminatory policies in housing and education in the North, or when he spoke out against the evils inherent in the US war in Vietnam, or when he embraced the cause of economic justice for those who were denied opportunity in the wealthiest nation on Earth by supporting striking workers or mobilising the poor people’s campaign – he was rebuked by some who said he should stay in his lane, or that he was getting involved in issues that distracted from his central message.

Martin Luther King, Jr, left, appearing in a Chicago news conference with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, on May 31, 1966. AP

The controversies were to be expected precisely because the moral challenges he presented were so deeply upsetting to those who embraced and benefited from the status quo.

As it is with humankind, with the passage of time we tend to forget the past. We gloss over and romanticise it. It was precisely this process of historical amnesia that we sought to upend by establishing a day honouring King. Our hope in securing the recognition of MLK Day was not only that he would be remembered as a leader and a man who devoted his life to the fight against injustice, but also that the realities he confronted and the injustices he opposed would never be forgotten.

What those of us who supported him had hoped when we fought to commemorate his birthday was that King's holiday would be one on which we would recall this history and the sacrifices he and so many others made in their efforts to bring needed change, and would then recommit ourselves to using, if necessary, the tools he had used to fight injustice, poverty and war.

Given this background, with the economic and social challenges confronted by King still present, it is deeply distressing that four decades later the political and moral challenges he posed to the established order have been diluted or erased from historical memory. Today, America is still torn apart by deep and abiding racial inequities, extreme income and wealth disparity, challenges to voting rights and government budgets that prioritise militarism and waging unwinnable wars at the expense of the social well-being of citizens. In the face of these problems, it is an insult for us to have celebrated Martin Luther King Day without the message of King and the empowering tactics he used being foremost in our minds. Americans need him today as much as they needed him during his lifetime.

Published: January 26, 2022, 2:00 PM