Historic Preservation, Monday Musings, The Times We Live In
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History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point.

Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part by 9/11, rising economic inequality, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Understanding how each successive generation views the world raises questions around how the stories about the past change.  That includes identifying the sight lines that we have available to see and tell those stories. One way we can grow our understanding of generational perspectives is through seeing the places where history happened.  I was not alive during Pearl Harbor, but when I was privileged to take an early morning tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii one Memorial Day weekend, I began to truly grasp the enormity of the sacrifice on that December Sunday morning in 1941 and its impact on my parents’ generation.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

On this day when we’ve just completed our annual celebration of the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there may be those not alive in the 1960s who wonder about his true impact.  Many younger generations know King only as a symbol or a type of civic deity.  Yet there are places, when paired with his writings, which demonstrate why he is so important today. Clayborn Temple is one such place.  When King came to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers—those African American men who went out on strike and walked the streets with their now famous “I Am a Man” signs—he was reviled by much of white America. Even those moderates who said they supported his work raised issues with his tactics.  (Think of his response to white pastors in Letters from Birmingham Jail.) That trip to Memphis, of course, ended in his assassination.

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

 

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America, makes King’s status then and now abundantly clear. Dyson argues that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large.  Yet it was King who said that the race problem “grows out of the . . . need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”  King also said, “Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”  Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”

Clayborn Temple Memorial

“I Am a Man” Memorial at Clayborn Temple in Memphis

King’s words are powerful, but they also grew out of a history. I’ve seen those antecedents most recently in the writings of Thomas Paine, “the incendiary voice of the American Revolution” as described by Lewis Lapham, and the first individual to write a denunciation of slavery in America. Read these words from Paine’s Rights of Man and see how they provide a prologue to King’s Poor People’s Campaign:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we often obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Understanding generational perspectives on the American story requires work, just as seeking the point of view of different communities of people can be hard.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.  Only when we open our eyes, minds, and hearts to our fellow human beings and acknowledge truths that have remained hidden—only when “one’s fellow citizens are … held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens”—will we be able to progress towards the aspirations of America’s founding documents.

With gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*The title is adapted from a line in Lewis H. Lapham’s Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

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