If you want to understand the full breadth of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you need to appreciate two aspects that often don’t get the attention they deserve: The role of his wife, Coretta Scott King, as Martin Luther King’s partner in activism, and the importance both of them attached to the pursuit of social justice beyond a narrower definition of civil rights.
That was an overall theme of a lecture on Martin Luther King’s legacy at Eckstein Hall on Jan. 25 by Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, and one of the foremost experts on the King family’s work. Carson has authored several books about the civil rights era and, in 1985, was asked by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish authoritative editions of her husband’s speeches, sermons, and other writing. That led to seven volumes of the papers of King.
It is that values question we should really be asking. As far as I can tell, those who object to the removal of the statutes seem to be saying that those Confederate generals who defended slavery, secession, and white supremacy represent the values of a twenty-first century America that is becoming more egalitarian and diverse.
It is overstatement to say that by removing monuments to Confederate generals one is erasing all history. Commentators have wondered aloud whether this will become a long-term movement towards total eradication of history of the South. The president even suggested this by asking when this will stop. He called the removal of Confederate monuments the destruction of culture. These claims incorrectly conflate crafting historical memory with the fact that honorific statuary in public places signals the values of the modern-day community.Memory of the Civil War and its aftermath will not suddenly be completely erased forever because statues are torn down, street names changed, buildings renamed, and the like. Culture will not be destroyed. (And as an aside, one should ask, “Who’s culture is being protected by protecting these monuments?”) The consequences of the Civil War, for good and ill, linger. Moreover, history’s memory is a lot longer than the beginning and ending of a statue, and history will continue to be useful as long as scholars, schools, and society have open and honest conversations about the past.
History is dynamic. Honorary statues are not. Communities change and values evolve and those who are honored yesterday may be disfavored tomorrow. Think about it this way–when the American Revolution concluded, as my friend and Marquette colleague Edward Fallone points out, no one objected that the history of British rule over the colonies would be erased forever when the statues of George III were torn down. Two hundred forty one years later, we literally still sing songs to sold-out audiences about the American Revolution. And Hamilton the Musical! still gets the facts right.
The communal choice of determining who is and who is not to be honored in the present day is a completely different conversation than one about the state of history. We shouldn’t confuse the two.
Yesterday, Fox News ousted Bill O’Reilly, who for two decades was the top-rated host with his show, The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly’s blustery on-air persona—which inspired Stephen Colbert to create ultraconservative pundit Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Show—minced no words, ever.
As a result, he often said outrageous, offensive, if not downright inaccurate things on the air. For example, he said that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodging provided by the government.” He called child hunger “a total lie,” and said that feminists should not be allowed to report on Trump “because Trump is the antithesis of” feminism. He’s also been known to make inappropriate comments to women on the air.
O’Reilly’s personal conduct (like that of his former boss Roger Ailes before him) apparently has been similarly offensive. Over the course of his time at Fox News, O’Reilly has been accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior involving both women at the network who worked for him and women who appeared as guests on his show.