Matt Stanley was recently featured on Emerging Civil War, a blog dedicated to continuing scholarship and discussion of issues related to the American Civil War. His essay explores the relationship between Civil War tensions, Civil Rights tensions, and the ever-changing perspective of American historical memory.
Still, some aspects of official American memory (and the national mythmaking it converges with) aren’t likely to change any time soon. I haven’t yet visited the monument (it opened three days ago), but I expect that it, like so much of King’s public memory, will focus on only parts of King’s message, such as non-violence and equal opportunity, and downplay some of the specifics within his goals of social and economic justice. In addition to trumpeting his well-known statements about racial equality, by the mid-1960s King came also to question the nature of capitalism and believed that war, racism, and poverty all had roots within the economic system. As Coretta Scott King later explained, her husband knew that “the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice . . . the contrast of wealth between the haves and the have-nots.” The fact that King’s aims had shifted and his radicalism had much intensified by 1965 will likely take a back seat to the (presently) more benign messages of equal opportunity, anti racial discrimination, or the American Dream. If the King Memorial functions as historical commemoration normally does, the American public will receive a version of King the establishment wants it to remember, which is to say it will receive a limited, anti-problematic version that projects a facade of national unity. According to the Memorial’s website, although the project was “not designed to be experienced in a single way with one single message, but rather it is to have a broad accessibility,” King’s words on the inscription wall are also drawn from his “most timeless and universal messages.” Though the fourteen inscriptions it depicts might indeed deal expressly with King’s definition of justice or even provide a fair portrait of King’s message by the end of his life (the exact “timeless and universal messages” are not available on the website), too often historic commemoration flattens multiple historical dimensions in the name of personal profit, political expediency, or national mythology.
Matt is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of History.