The Sanitizing of History

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you stop and really think about it, it is remarkable that so radical a figure from the past would be celebrated with a federal holiday.

It is even more remarkable that his memory has so quickly become bland and unoffensive, a universally lauded icon of a self-evident cause, a civil rights symbol that even white conservatives can love.

How far that seems from the reality of the man. How different the spirit invoked against Black Lives Matter and other modern protest movements from the historical realities of the movement King led.

After the protests in Ferguson, which went disastrously wrong, and those in Baltimore and New York and Standing Rock and elsewhere, conservatives often turned to King’s memory as a sanitized example of the “right way” to protest. That way – not merely non-violent but also without interfering with commerce or traffic – bears little resemblance to the historical lessons of the marches and sit-ins that King led.

In a half-century, the man who shut down segregated lunch counters and blocked a major bridge to advance a radical vision of racial equality and integration has somehow become a talisman for those who want the current generation of activists to sit down and shut up.

King is scarcely the only example of this process by which historical figures come to embody something entirely separate from what they actually said and did. Think of Abraham Lincoln – how would today’s small government conservatives regard a president who shut down an entire industry and a “traditional” way of life across the south, in direct contradiction to the will of the voters in those states?

But the speed of King’s evolution from radical demanding change to a comfortable and unifying figure is jarring. Unlike Lincoln, who is a figure in the remote recesses of our history, accessible only through the records of posterity, King’s contemporaries still walk among us. Some, like the venerable John Lewis who has made such headlines this week, still continue the fight he started.

How is it possible that in so short a time, within living memory, a person’s legacy can be so drastically altered?

They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But how can we learn from history when the past itself is twisted and stripped of its meaning, context, and struggle?

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