Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we remember a man who spent his life in the service of others. While devoting time to helping others on a day like today is a fitting and noble method of honoring Dr. King’s life, the unsophisticated view of Dr. King as an apotheosized great man fails to constitute a proper remembering of such an important figure.
Many Americans are first taught about Dr. King’s life and work in elementary school, when they learn that Dr. King was a good and important man who fought for the rights of black Americans. At a young age, it makes sense to learn about Dr. King’s work with little to no nuance. The problem is that the improvement in our ability to handle complexity does not co-occur with a more nuanced understanding of King’s legacy and the legacies of other such figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Though MLK is now remembered as a champion of nonviolent protest, he also said that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” In scrubbing away rough edges of his discourse, we forget that Dr. King was surveilled, smeared and threatened by the F.B.I., not to mention loathed by innumerable Americans who took him as a threat to their way of life.
The tendency to remain at a flashcards-and-quotes level of familiarity with the life and ideology of Dr. King and other historical figures limits the ability to benefit from their teachings. To begin with, it is simply intellectually dishonest to conceive of Dr. King and other important leaders as one-dimensional, static figures of unquestionable good. It is a disservice to him not to understand him as a whole man. On a more practical point, reading history in black and white makes it impossible to apply to our current situation. If we understand history as a naturally and gradually progressing force, we will fail to recognize opportunities for societal advancement when they present themselves to us in all of their complexity. Good leaders are not purely good, and seeing historical leaders as such blinds us to those among us.
Furthermore, the flattening of historical figures into uncomplicated heroic individuals discounts the context that they worked in and that allowed for their success. Dr. King was not a one-man civil rights movement. Movements are composed of many, many people, each with their own complex story, ideology and role in history. It is fine to celebrate the most vaunted within a movement, but unacceptable to ignore the fertile and variegated soil from which they sprouted. A modern-day example is the heterogeneity of today’s Syrian resistance. In the future histories of Syria, it would be a failure to isolate some rebel leader at the expense of the whole mosaic of resistance to the Assad regime.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote that the “use of history as therapy means the corruption of history as history.” The same occurs with our treatment of historical figures. Defanging them and reducing them to easily digestible bits of pure virtue or vice does us no good. This MLK Day, let our remembrances of Dr. King extend to all that he did and was.
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