Thinking about the 46th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination of April 4, 1968, I found myself considering which MLK we remember when we talk about his murder. For years, I’ve considered how MLK “changed” by the end of his life, how he came to be seen nationally and internationally by 1968, and what he was doing on the eve of his death. Yet I’ve also begun to consider how the anniversary of King’s death offers a moment to reflect on a different King from the one normally celebrated in January of every year (based, of course, off his January 15 birth date).
Some of my research interrogates the rise of King as a national heroic figure in the 1980s. While David Chappell did an excellent job in discussing this in Waking From the Dream, I’ve decided to focus on more partisan press. This is to ascertain the beliefs and desires of both left and right wing forces in American society during the Reagan years. After all, I think there’s still much to be discussed around those forces in the 1980s, and historians are just starting to get a firm grasp on the 1980s as a political, cultural, and social moment in American history. Of course, one can’t just assume a decade as an era of change, but must look to the period and understand just what in the world was going on.
For one, memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. must be seen as part of a larger national discourse on the place of African Americans within American history. I’ve spent plenty of time talking about the idea of an African American public sphere, or looking at African Americans as part of racial discourse using the civil sphere theory, but we can’t forget about Black responses to events in the 1970s and 1980s, when you started seeing more publicly embraced African American heroes in both fictionalized universes, and national dialogues around history and culture across the nation. So yes, we have the rise of Black Consciousness and Black is Beautiful. But let’s not forget that such debates served a two-fold purpose: as empowerment for African Americans, and a way for Black contributions to American society to finally be remembered and memorialized in the national dialogue on race and citizenship. But, at the same time, a battle over the radicalism of some of these figures has also taken place. And in the process, major questions about remembrance and modern political will are raised.
There was, however, something more at stake when it came to the memory of Dr. King in the 1980s. And, as always, this is a reminder that when it comes to memory, a great deal is always at stake in the public sphere. Fears about King’s birthday becoming a holiday sometimes arose on the American Left, but not for the same reasons as they did for the Right. Vincent Harding, who I’ve mentioned several times and played a major role in pushing forward a radical vision of King’s legacy, aired his concern in the pages of The Progressive magazine. Harding viewed King in his final days as “shaping a new role for himself, leader of a nonviolent revolutionary army/movement, one which he also saw connecting with the oppressed peoples of other nations.” This role for King was one Harding wanted promoted. Considering his own activism in the 1960s, and his role in the Institute of the Black World in the 1970s, it’s not surprising that Harding wanted his left-wing readership to not forget the kind of leader King was in the late 1960s.
I’d ask that you also consider that statement in light of the 1980s as a decade of conservatism. While Harding and others were discussing King’s legacy, in many ways they were also asking the question of where they would go, as Left activists, during the Reagan years. They weren’t just debating with conservatives; the American Left was often fighting as much with more moderate forces within the Democratic Party itself. Never a full-fledged “home” for the Left as much as it was a place to gather forces during political campaigns, Democrats asked tough questions of New Deal liberalism after the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Such questions would take on a renewed urgency after Walter Mondale’s crushing loss in 1984, but my point here is this: battles over memory surrounding race in the 1980s often can’t be divorced from debates over the very political soul of liberalism during the same era. This is a topic I’ll delve into more in the future, but for today we have to consider the “mainstream” MLK celebrated in January versus the “radical” King discussed among activists around April 4. Activists and scholars such as Harding and Michael Eric Dyson, I’d argue, want us to remember the latter far more in our national discourse on race (after all, Dyson wrote a book titled April 4, 1968 for that very reason). The intersection of memory, race, and politics is very important if we want to understand recent American history. It’s a topic that, while getting some excellent analysis from historians, still needs plenty more discussion and work. That is a task towards which I’ll be working on for this blog in coming weeks.
 Vincent Harding, “King and Revolution,” The Progressive, April 1983, 16-17.