Reclaiming King During Black History Month: How Contentious Politics Transform Collective Memory


On August 28, 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, a smaller crowd marched to the Lincoln Memorial to draw attention to Dr. King’s “deferred dreams” and the rollback of civil rights gains under the Reagan administration. In a statement, Coretta Scott King applauded the diverse marchers as she declared, “[Dr. King’s] dream of justice, equality and national unity is not the exclusive property of any race, religion or political party.”

Little could she have imagined that a little over two decades later on August 28, 2010, the conservative Tea Party activist and television host Glenn Beck would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood, claiming that dream to a rally of 80,000 conservatives as he cried, “We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the Civil Rights Movement. We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place,” (Beck 2010). In Beck’s view, white Americans were the new victims under the Obama presidency, threatened by minority claims to “special rights.”

Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that social movements “[back] their innovations by reference to a ‘people’s past,’…to traditions of revolution…and to [their] own heroes and martyrs,” (Hobsbawm 1992). Yet Dr. King was not always a “hero and martyr” for conservatives. Just 30 years prior, there were spirited congressional battles around designating Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday. Conservatives called King a communist traitor, detailing adultery to question his morality, declaring him an unworthy symbol for national commemoration. Though Reagan signed the national holiday into existence in 1983 as a matter of political strategy, state-wide battles over the holiday lasted into the 1990’s. South Carolina was the last state to approve a paid King holiday in 2000.

Just ten years later, Glenn Beck, an unapologetically outspoken conservative, would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to “reclaim” King’s dream for the Tea Party. What explains this drastic misappropriation of collective memory?

My book project takes up this question by investigating the political career of the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1980’s through the present. Collective memory is the shared pool of cultural knowledge that is constructed and reconstructed over time to make sense of the past, the collective recollection that tells us “who we are” as a people (Olick and Robbins 1998). From a unique dataset of archival data from 10 different social movements across the political spectrum, I find that each of these social movements – Animal Rights; Anti-Abortion; Christian Right; Environment; Gun Rights; Immigrant Rights; LGBT Rights; Muslim Rights; Nativist; Police Reform – deploys the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement toward their own political goals.

This finding may not seem all that surprising at first glance. We know that since the 1960’s, numerous groups including women, Latinos, Asians, the disabled, and LGBTQ coalitions have deployed the memory of the Civil Rights Movement to make claims to inclusion and equality. There is much research on these movements, coined as “the minority rights revolution” (Skrentny 2002), the “movement of movements” (Fraser and Gerstle 1990; Gosse 2006) and the rise of the “civil rights society” (Bumiller 1992). Frankly, for historically marginalized groups, strategic invocations of the African American Civil Rights Movement may seem like a natural mobilization strategy, a ready-made set of tactics, frames, and repertoires of contention for mobilization (Snow and Benford 1992, Tarrow 1994, Tilly 1978).

However, increasingly since the 1980’s, conservative, majority-white social movements from the Gun Rights and Family Values coalitions to Nativist, White-Supremacist movements have reshaped and deployed the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement to claim they are the new minorities fighting for their rights. In these invocations, gun rights activists are the new Rosa Parks, anti-abortion activists are freedom riders, and anti-gay groups are protecting Dr. King’s Christian vision. Why do these invocations matter?

I show that as mobilizing groups deploy the same collective memory toward competing political ends, they generate new interpretations of history which take on a life of their own. The proliferation of these interpretations of history, over time, changes the collective memory itself and the way we collectively recall our shared history. As social historians have shown, the Civil Rights Movement as we know it has transformed into a vacated, sanitized collective memory celebrating colorblindness and individualism (Hall 2005; Hill 2017; Romano and Raiford 2006; Theoharis 2018).

These sanitized meanings are not only bound in a national holiday, they are also narrativized in textbooks and celebrated by highlighting particular figures, rendering others invisible (Barnett 1993; Robnett 2000). These flattened memories are commemorated by rosy images of Blacks and whites joining, arms linked, in a quest for racial justice, through a particular conception of racism and violence as existing specifically in the south (Morris 2014; Washington 1996). These meanings are bound in commemorative structures and remain at the center of American collective memory, defining the boundaries of safe, acceptable protest and safe, acceptable discourse.

As the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement evolved into a political strategy, these bounded meanings would be invoked to either legitimate or discredit movements time and again. For example, when Black Lives Matter took to the streets to protest police violence, Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee took to the 24-hour news cycle to argue Dr. King would disagree with their message and tactics. He said, “When I hear people scream, ‘Black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. That’s the whole message that Dr. King tried to present, and I think he’d be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

At the same time, there was a growing groundswell of critique against the misappropriation of the Civil Rights Movement, including a powerful statement in support of Black Lives Matter from sixty-six former SNCC activists. In 2014, a contingent of the Black Lives Matter Movement kickstarted a Reclaim MLK campaign, made viral through the hashtag #reclaimMLK. In the four years since, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in cities all across the country, activists have joined growing demonstrations centered on King’s radical legacy, the fight for racial and economic justice. On social media, activists forego the invocation of King’s whitewashed “I Have a Dream” speech for King’s more controversial oratory on capitalism and the Vietnam War. Activists reframe the much-misappropriated civil rights narrative into one centered on human rights and global systems of oppression.

As Opal Tometi and Gerald Lenoir wrote in an op-ed in Time Magazine titled “Black Lives Matter is Not a Civil Rights Movement,” “As black activists from two different generations, we understand that the black liberation movement in the U.S.—from its inception as an anti-slavery movement, through the Civil Rights Era, and up to now—has never been only for civil rights. The movement is a struggle for the human rights and dignity of black people in the U.S., which is tied to black peoples’ struggle for human rights across the globe. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: ‘Since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.’”

Activists recognize that the way we recollect the past powerfully shapes the way we make sense of the present to enact social change. By reclaiming MLK (and Rosa and Malcolm and Fannie and so many others), activists are remaking the collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement, centering the narratives that were strategically extracted from recollection over time, centering the work of those long written out of the American narrative. As we enter Black History Month, we might take a moment to reflect on why the political uses of the past matter, on how movements’ strategic invocations of collective memory, no matter how well-intentioned, have unseen consequences. The distortion of collective memory obscures the roots of our present-day systems of inequality (Fleming 2017), generating the reproduction of the very systems many activists seek to dismantle. In the dawn of the new Resistance, the path forward may first require a critical reckoning with the past.

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