Monday, January 20, 2014

Problems of Historical Memory: Teaching Martin Luther King Jr.

Who doesn't venerate Martin Luther King Jr.?

When I ask my students for their three favorite Americans, King is nearly always at the top of the list, besting Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln.  But I would argue that MLK's consensus position as a member of the American pantheon has more to do with our distorted memory than with King's life and work.

Martin Luther King has been whitewashed into a comfortable, uplifting, color-blind icon. The voice of this prophet has been muted by the distortions of historical memory.

If you are comfortable with American foreign policy, American inequality, or if you believe that merely adopting color-blind policies would solve American racial inequality, then you should be uncomfortable with Martin Luther King.

My goal, this semester, is to make King uncomfortable for my students. And I'm open to suggestions.

I will, still, have them read the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," but I would like to add a few more difficult texts as well.  I plan to begin with "A Time to Break Silence," (text here, audio here) King's 1967 sermon at New York City's Riverside Church. The triple evils of racism, militarism, and economic inequality should unsettle a few.  But I worry that the historical memory of the Vietnam War might also mute the challenges of this sermon.  I want my students to take away more than the fact that King was opposed to the Vietnam War, and I'm nervous that simple fact will drown out the more radical sentiment that "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

How do you reckon with the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and offer your students a more comprehensive portrait of the man and his times?

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