U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Tale of Two Kings? January 15, April 4, and the Legacy of MLK

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.”[1] 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.

[1] Vincent Harding, “King and Revolution,” The Progressive, April 1983, 16-17.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, thanks for these previews/glimpses of where you’re going with your dissertation. You’re a real encouragement to me to risk a little more and worry a little less. Thank you.

    In that connection (i.e., showing my hand a bit), I found a very cranky letter to the editor in a SF Bay Area newspaper from the late 1980s, contrasting Ronald Reagan’s dignified commemoration of MLK’s legacy on the January holiday with Jesse Jackson’s politicized commemoration. The irony, of course, is how very politicized was that image of a King who transcended politics.

  2. This is exactly what I’m trying to get at. These figures were highly politicized figures when they were alive, but when dead they suddenly become a little less prickly to the political touch, as it were. Part of that, of course, is indicative of where the nation has moved on race (which is a good thing), but it also obscures the myriad of challenges King and others faced in the 1960s.

    A friend of mine told me while reviewing a paper of mine in a reading group last week that we need to do more to differentiate between “memory” and “lived experience.” For many civil rights activists, these moments in the 1980s (like what you mentioned above) where moments that they experienced and wanted to make sure no one else remembered. What happened, of course, is that people simply chose to remember in different ways.

    Finally, I want to show that these debates about King’s legacy were robust among liberals and the Left. I want to make clear how rich these debates were in the 1980s, as so many on the Left (and to an extent on the Right) were trying to shape the present and future of discourse on race, culture, and a variety of issues subsumed within those broad fields.

  3. Great thoughts on historical memory and the politics of history scholarship, Robert. The 1980s does seem to be really crucial for black history, as Pero Dagbovie so important points out. I’ve been thinking about the very issues you raise in regards to Du Bois—most specifically the scholarship on his late career from the 1930s to the 1960s. I don’t think it is an accident that scholarship on his twilight years really emerged in the late 1980s as the Cold War came to an end. And scholars of/on the Left such as the late Manning Marable and Gerald Horne led the way in this regard. I look forward to your further thoughts on the Left’s relationship to King and his memory.

    Of course, Herbert Aptheker was making the case for political uses of the memory of Du Bois’s radicalism many years, but the 1980s seems to be one critical benchmark in terms of Du Bois scholarship. Your post also reminds me of King’s speech on Du Bois in NYC only weeks before he died. It is interesting to note, at least in my opinion, King’s words about Du Bois in 1968 were true for much of the 1980s: “We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. . . It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.”

    • That MLK speech is one of my favorites—and I only recently discovered it. It’s a good meditation on both Du Bois and King; Du Bois in the way in which King remembered him, and for MLK himself in the way in which he had embraced his own radicalism.

      I’m glad you mentioned Dagbovie. His works have asked some serious questions about the very nature of African American history; digesting his work has only enhanced my own. I’m certainly glad you left some wonderful comments!

      • The rather benign reference to communism illustrates how far MLK had drifted out of the American mainstream by the time of his murder in 1968.

        Where he had once had been a Moses, he had become [at best] a Jeremiah.


        The chronicle [Taylor] Branch gives of the last two years of King’s life is one of a succession of thrashing failures. King couldn’t gin up any popular momentum for the Northern anti-poverty crusade. His tiptoeing, then thundering entry into international relations–in his condemnation of the Vietnam War and support for Israel in the Six-Day War–made him look naïve and foolish. His championing of the trash collectors’ strike in Memphis made him look like just another liberal, and a loser, too. And his attempts to manage the emerging radical core of Huey Newton and H. Rap Brown just made him look out-of-touch and ineffective, a kindly but irrelevant grandpa.

        None of this, in Branch’s elegant telling, impeaches the nobility of King’s basic imagination, or his undertaking. But it does suggest that there is something tenuous and circumstantial about revolutions…

    • Thanks, I greatly appreciate the kind words! I remember reading that post too. An excellent analysis of the speech, in my opinion.

  4. And in regards to Tom Van Dyke’s comments above, I always find myself wondering what happens to MLK and his legacy if he isn’t assassinated in 1968. He was certainly being seen increasingly as out of touch with mainstream society; in fact one fascinating aspect of his is how we was seen by some African American newspapers. Some, (and if memory serves, esp. the Chicago Defender) weren’t too keen on his anti-war stance in 1967 and 1968.

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