U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial and Public Memory

Had the threat of Hurricane Irene not intervened, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial would have been dedicated in Washington, D.C., yesterday.

It’s utterly unsurprising that the Memorial is controversial. Every memorial to appear recently in and around the National Mall has been (as were such now iconic monuments as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials at the times of their construction). 

The National Review called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, when its design was announced in 1981, an “Orwellian glop,” while Vietnam veteran (and future Princeton history PhD) Tom Carhart denounced it as “a black gash of shame.

The World War II Memorial was criticized for its blandness, its authoritarian style, and its effect on the sweep of space between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments.

The FDR Memorial was criticized for the initial decision not to depict Roosevelt in a wheelchair, for its eventual decision not to depict him with a cigarette, for its downplaying of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in the FDR White House, and, most importantly for its overall effect. “The tragedy of the memorial,” wrote Allida Black in Public History,

is that with all this promise, with the intricate care give to FDR’s programs and their recipients, the horror of war, and the promise of the United Nations, the individuals responsible for this sit on pedestals, parodying themselves.  Rather than personifying the leadership the Roosevelts exuded, the statues stand in frozen stoicism.

The same could be said about the figure of Dr. King in the new memorial.

Indeed, the controversy surrounding the King Memorial is similar to these other recent public debates. Unions are angry that, despite promises to the contrary, non-union labor was used to construct the monument.  The Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott has chided the design for being “stuck between the conceptual and the literal” and has argued that

the memorial is focused on the anodyne, pre-1965 King, the man remembered as a saintly hero of civil rights, not an anti-war goad to the national conscience whose calls for social and economic justice would be considered rank socialism in today’s political climate.*

Others have questioned the decision to have a Chinese sculptor design the likeness of MLK, either because of his national identity, his “socialist realist” aesthetics, or a combination of the two.

But what is surprising is how muted this whole debate is. Only twenty years ago, in the early 1990s, the federal holiday celebrating Dr. King was still bitterly opposed in a handful of states, with opponents citing King’s associations with “a great many communists” and his opposition to the Vietnam War.  Today, even the majority of the critics of the King Memorial at least pay lip service to the notion that King is a figure worthy of such celebration.  And its biggest fans include some voices on the right, like columnist Charles Krauthammer.

What has changed over the last two decades?  There’s some truth in the Whiggish story of racial progress that is the most popular explanation for what’s different today. Although it certainly didn’t herald a “post-racial” America, Obama’s election in 2008 remains a touchstone of this progress.   But our racial progress is, of course, much more incomplete than the self-congratulatory bromides of that election night suggested.

Just as surely a “safe” Dr. King has emerged in recent years, a figure whose career seems to have begun and ended at the March on Washington.  Today, everyone can celebrate the end to legal segregation.  If King’s message were no more or less than the fact that Jim Crow was a massive injustice, and his greatest accomplishment was framing that message in soaring rhetoric, we could all marvel at the “I Have a Dream” Speech and pat ourselves on the back for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (even as today’s Republican Party tries to undo some of what the latter bill accomplished).

This King is safe not merely for those supportive of our new racial consensus. Over the last two decades, the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been invoked as supporting such unlikely causes as the destruction of affirmative action programs and support for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, it’s almost become a cliché to point out that King was much more radical than he’s often remembered as being.  Cornel West is entirely correct to argue in the New York Times that “MLK Would Want a Revolution, Not a Memorial,” but this message is hardly new.

But even the emergent, “safe” King is more complicated than first meets the eye. Among the fourteen quotations on the new King Memorial, is one in which he explicitly expresses his opposition to the Vietnam War: “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.” What’s missing, oddly enough, is any quotation which focuses on African American civil rights as such (though there is a reference to Montgomery, African Americans themselves go utterly unnamed among the quoted materials).

Philip Kennicott’s complaint that the memorial focuses on “the anodyne, pre-1965 King” in a sense misses the point.  First, there was nothing anodyne about the early Civil Rights struggle. Indeed, part of the problem with the “safe” King is that it retroactively makes the black freedom struggle not much of a struggle at all.  While it’s critical to remember the unfinished business of King’s life–from his pacifism to his social democratic commitments to end poverty regardless of race–it is just as critical to remember that there was nothing at the time safe about the goals for which King fought in the 1950s and early 1960s that now receive essentially universal acclaim in the public sphere.  That King, pre-1965, has become anodyne is, itself, much of the problem (after all, the chief fault of Whiggish views of history are their tendency to assume that progress is inevitable).

But, second, as that quotation about Vietnam suggests, the Memorial does not, in fact, focus entirely on the pre-1965 King.  Perhaps the problem isn’t this Memorial, but any memorial to a figure whose politics were as firmly in the prophetic mode as Dr. King’s.  Memorials celebrate. Memorials morn. But memorials–at least official, national ones–rarely call us to further action, especially not against the powers-that-be that create them. 

* Given that a healthcare policy that is the direct descendent of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts system and Bob Dole’s proposals from the early 1990s is considered rank socialism today, Kennicott substantially understates this last point.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks fornthe post, Ben. Well done. As you say, memorials are rarely calls for action. Though this one did prompt Cornel West to ‘wake-up’ as Andrew said. In the stories I’ve read recounting how this memorial came to be, it seemed a good deal of the focus was on the black fraternity that had made building of a memorial to King a mission. The mission has succeeded and is a cause for celebration, but not necessarily a cause for anything larger.

    I wonder though, as historians–rather than social critics–what we can say about the establishment of this memorial on the national mall? I accept that King would rather have a commitment to end poverty but what does the erection of a monument to the advocate of such causes say about recent history other than we have avoided hard questions yer again?

  2. I think one of the reasons Martin Luther King Jr is considered safe is because he advocated “non-violence” and in my people’s minds that equates to turning the other cheek. I always emphasize in my classes that non-violence requires violence. King made the choice to put those children in harms way in Birmingham–a choice an earlier generation would not have made, and many parents (including Condoleeza Rice’s) rejected. The only reason it worked is because the reaction was so violent and it was IN THE MEDIA.

    As a colleague of mine pointed out the other day, King’s direct action campaign in Chicago didn’t work at first because the Daley machine didn’t react violently. That’s why King ended up going into Cicero, where the citizens were violent, but not the government.

    People don’t seem to realize how much courage it took to be “non-violent” and what a radical decision it was. Pacifism is not somehow easier than self-defense. They are both difficult choices. There’s a reason, though, that activists had to be trained not to respond with self-defense when attacked. It’s not the first response one would normally choose.

  3. i second lauren’s point about how it’s easy not to think about the difficulty and violence inherent in non-violence. it sounds much better than saying ‘civil disobedience,’ which makes everyone nervous.

  4. I agree with Ben’s point that making the man into a memorial is to make him safe, even palatable for white middle class Americans (OK, not exactly what Ben said). This process began on the national level, I believe, with the attempts to get his birthday recognized. As a result, my children are taught a version of MLK in primary school that no historian could countenance. They stress his moral qualities but ignore his intellectual depth and (as Lauren mentioned) his “non-violent violence”. As he is presented in the schools, he is not a dangerous figure (or at least no more than Columbus is).

  5. Ray –

    Is this not a problem of almost all of American history as it is taught K-12? The history our children get is so sanitized and sterilized as to be almost unrecognizable to those of us who have dedicated our careers to the study of it. Of course we are trained to be so specialized we can hardly begin to unravel all that is wrong with the way history is taught.

    Jefferson was sanitized for generations and thanks to the culture wars full right wing offensive against academic history, even the dumbed-down Jefferson has become controversial.

    The meta-messages of the memorial along with the anti-history offensive make me feel more professionally insecure than ever before.

  6. on a more optimistic note: the series of posts that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been doing on the US civil war as (or, as he has decided, not) tragedy, is to my mind a model for the activity of a public intellectual in the present moment. he’s quite publicly and seriously thinking his way through the moral dilemmas presented by the memory and memorialization of the US civil war. and people read him. gives me, you know, hope.

  7. @eric: Totally agree about Coates’s posts on the Civil War. Someone here at USIH should do a post about them. They deserve all the publicity they can get.

  8. I wish I’d taken pictures of it, but there’s a King memorial in San Francisco that, if I remember correctly, does include some quotations of his more radical stuff. But (again, if I remember correctly), I think the design makes it so that the quotations – not just the radical ones – are not the most prominent part of the memorial.

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