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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 2011

I was planning to write a post about how the man we celebrate today was a true radical activist whose image has been thoroughly sanitized for mass consumption. After all, it’s “Martin Luther King Day of Service,” not “Martin Luther King Day of Action.” But my friend over at Banalogies, as someone who has studied the black freedom struggle in depth, has done it (twice, sort of) far better than I can. So I’ll just leave off with an MLK quote I once used as an epigraph to a series of essays:

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

I wonder what those conservatives claiming some ideological affiliation with MLK would make of this statement.

On a slightly different but related note, I recently finished Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union, which is what seems to me a fairly radical reading of the history of the U.S. labor movement since the Great Depression. While there are many things to say about this book (for now, I’ll just say that much of what Frances Fox Piven had to say a few months ago seems to line up perfectly with Lichtenstein’s viewpoint), one thing that struck me peripherally was how backwards and obstructionist the South, or at least Southern Democrats, were in preventing any social change that undermined existing structures of racial oppression.

Why did this strike me? Only because I grew up, and received my K-12 education, in the South. I had an excellent AP U.S. History teacher – possibly the best teacher I had in high school and one of the best I’ve had in my entire academic career – yet I don’t remember really, viscerally, learning about the role of the South in U.S. race relations. There wasn’t an outright denial of the South’s racist legacy or anything so obvious as that; we learned plenty about the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement (though, of course, only in the context of civil rights), and no one respectable called the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression. But I have the sneaking suspicion that things were generally sanitized. The clearest example is that the only thing I remember from my education about Reconstruction is that there were “Northern carpetbaggers.” I had no sense that the failure of Reconstruction meant ongoing oppression of African-Americans at the hands of an obdurate South.

All of which is to say, while I think I have a decent grasp on U.S. history, there are some things I should probably revisit in light of where I received my primary education. Perhaps I’ll start with Eric Foner’s book. Any other suggestions?

Flying Whale

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2 comments

  1. Like Flying Whale, I received my education in the South and, as I look back, continue to discover ways in which the history lessons were sanitized.

    I’m only 50 (of 550) pages into The Warmth of Other Suns, but Wilkerson is already filling gaps in my historical knowledge about the tremendous gains black Southerners made during Reconstruction and the swiftness with which they were dismantled after Northern oversight ended.

    All of which reminds me that we tend to view history through dual lenses of linearity and progress, forgetting that many of our greatest fights suffered deep, deep set-backs–even after we thought they were won.

    Given the turn in our nation’s politics as evidenced by last November’s elections, studying up on the South’s reversals after Reconstruction seems unfortunately timely.


  2. […] « The (myth of the) American Dream Gotta say it February 5, 2011 In an earlier comment, I wrote that: we tend to view history through dual lenses of linearity and progress, forgetting […]



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