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

Nothing Can be Changed Until it is Faced

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Last week, President Obama named the A.G. Gaston Motel (a National Trust National Treasure), the 16th Street Baptist Church (site of a bomb attack in 1963 that killed four young girls), and other places near them as part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.  Made on the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the president’s designation was a good reminder of the importance of why we protect places that tell difficult stories from our past.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a powerful book that harkened back to the work and writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a work that demands a response from the reader and is not easily dismissed.

In the book’s foreword, Cornel West alludes to the link between Alexander’s work and Dr. King’s core beliefs.  King called for us to be “lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”  It is the work of King for the poor and vulnerable in places like Alabama that led President Obama to designate this new National Monument.

Michelle Alexander’s last chapter is inspired by the writing of James Baldwin.  Coincidentally, the Washington Post recently included Baldwin’s writing in an article about a new Memorial to Peace and Justice.  Better known by its common name of the national lynching memorial, this place has been envisioned by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Bryan Stevenson, who also is its executive director and spoke at our PastForward 2015 conference.  That piece in the Post includes this powerful line from an unfinished book by James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When we talk about sharing the broad story of the American experience, not all of it will be positive, yet all of it informs our present.  That line from Baldwin is a powerful reminder to us. We can help shape a better future, but we cannot change anything – in our personal lives as well as in our national experience – unless it is first faced.

As we give thanksgiving for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are well served to keep Baldwin’s admonition in mind.

A.G. Gaston Motel

A. G. Gaston Motel (photo credit: City of Birmingham Archives)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Edge of the American West is one of those nice finds on the Internet.  As we head into the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, I found their post on Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. (Again) to be worth sharing.

In the post, the writer Ari focuses on a King speech entitled The Other America that Dr. King gave weeks before his death.  Ari writes:

By this time in his life, though, King openly expressed sympathy for those who embraced other means, for those who would not turn the other cheek:

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” That’s wonderful writing. But also: that’s not the MLK my son learned about in kindergarten last week or the MLK my students learn about in their textbooks.

Ari then moves on to talk about how the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, which was enacted over a great deal of controversy with the support of unions and corporate America, was finally approved, and he ends with this summation:

I wonder what Martin Luther King would think of his eponymous day. Of the MLK lesson plan — long on heroism, patriotism, and feel-good rhetoric but short on violence, non- or otherwise — in my son’s classroom. Of the fact that his holiday’s roots in organized labor have been completely forgotten. Of the painful irony that corporate sponsorship proved key in passing the law marking his birthday.

More than that, I wonder what those sponsors would think if they were transported back to Grosse Pointe, on March 12, 1968, to hear King deliver his “Other America” speech, including the line, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I suspect they wouldn’t recognize that Dr. King. I wonder how many of us would.

Not your normal post around the MLK holiday, but it is important to understand the full dimension of King and his work.  As a historian, I found the post worth the read and worth sharing.  Recommended.

More to come…

DJB

A few more Memphis Highlights

A few quick observations after spending the last 24 hours in Memphis…

Any first-time visitor to the city has to make time to see the National Civil Rights Museum.  (Photo at the beginning of the post.)  I spent an hour on a tour with the museum’s curator and the head of Memphis Heritage this morning, and I’ve seldom been as moved as when standing between the restored rooms 306 (Dr. Martin Luther King’s room) and 307, viewing the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.  One listens to excerpts from his final “Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before, and then looks up to see the boarding house across the street where history changed.  Later in the tour, the view is reversed, as you stand next to James Earl Ray’s bathroom and see the balcony, with the historic cars parked outside beneath a large wreath.  Very powerful.

Tracey gave us an insiders tour.  We talked a great deal about the decisions behind the original exhibit and the thinking now underway for future exhibits.  I was pleased to see a section added with the support of the Indian community of Memphis on Gandhi.  It reminded me of my visit last year to Gandhi’s burial site in New Delhi (see photo).  Today I had the same emotions and gratefulness for courageous and visionary leaders.

In my talk at AIA Memphis last evening, I quoted historian and National Trust for Historic Preservation Trustee Emeritus David McCullough:

We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life – here, nationwide, worldwide – and this creates great pressures and tensions.  But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn.

We all learn about history from books, certainly, but reading history can’t compare with the experience of walking through history, seeing in the deferred dreams of the Lorraine Motel or the lively sweep of a historic Beale Street an entryway into our collective memory.  We need places like this because we need our collective memory.

I also had a delightful visit with the Chairman of the Board and the Director of the Center for Southern Folklore.  We shared many acquaintances (including my former professor Dr. Charles Wolfe) and I was pleased to hear of a Save America’s Treasures grant to help preserve a marvelous collection of photographs from Memphis’ African American community by the Rev. L.O. TaylorSAT was started by the Clinton Administration and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Preservation magazine has a story on SAT’s 10th Anniversary coming up in the next issue.

A couple of other things to see:  the famous Peabody Hotel ducks taking their stroll from the fountain in the lobby to the elevator.  They generate quite a crowd!  And June and I had an early lunch today at the Arcade Restaurant on S. Main Street, a classic diner and the city’s oldest cafe.  It has a great atmosphere that capped off two very interesting days to highlight preservation work in Memphis.

This was a business trip, so I couldn’t play tourist.  Things I missed that tourists enjoy:  the Stax museum, which June says is terrific, and Graceland. (I joked in my talk that the last time I visited Memphis, Graceland had an occupant.)  But of course, even these sites have preservation implications.  Many of the Stax stars lived in homes around the neighborhood worthy of preservation and Graceland is – of course – the historic home of the King.

Back at my home now…and getting ready for next weekend’s work trip to North Carolina.

More to come…

DJB