Utah is a place where people strive to document memory through genealogy, scrapbooking and storytelling. Some of us live lives and archive them to provide a history of ourselves, our world and what we leave behind. Others of us leave a trace of things we have done —graduations, marriages, divorces, awards, crimes — with only birth and death as constants. Still, others may actively work to leave no mark, hiding in the shadows.
Sometimes we attempt to retrace the steps of others to look through the world with their eyes. I was reminded of this by award-winning author Daniel Mendelsohn, who provided a keynote speech last week at Weber State University. Mendelsohn shared an important reminder that we reconstruct the past with imperfect information, with our own agendas and often through a limited and distorted lens.
This is particularly meaningful to me as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. When we talk about King today, we talk about his work for social justice. We speak about a man cut down too soon. We talk about his desire to see the content of character rather than the color of skin. Today, we frame this man as a savior not only of black people but of all people. It is important here to note that when most of us think about or even teach about Dr. King, we talk about his nonviolent efforts, the bus boycott, voting rights and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Yet the frame of today is radically different than of his time. Dr. King was a radical truth-teller. He criticized white supremacy and white privilege. Dr. King was arrested more than 15 times. His home was bombed. He was called anti-American and pro-communist for his anti-Vietnam War activities. When he was murdered, he was preparing to speak and lead a march with sanitation workers who were striking for better pay, safety standards and union rights opposed by the mayor of Memphis.
The public, who so willingly accept him now, openly demonized his calls for human rights and civic engagement of all people then. White Americans were tired of hearing about the plight of blacks — slavery, after all, was over. They didn’t want to hear about voting rights, housing, criminal justice, employment and education issues anymore. Couldn’t black America be happy with what we had, the bit we had been given?
This brings me to my point: 50 years after the death of King, are we suffering from a memory lapse? Today, we hear a similar refrain to an old song, “If we just stop talking about race, then we won’t have race issues anymore!” Unfortunately, that’s not how this works.
If we stop talking about race, poverty and civil rights, the issues do not simply go away — they intensify. There are few who would insist we were wrong as a nation to move toward equality. We can now see that through public protest and other forms of nonviolent action change can be made. If members of the Black Lives Matter movement or IMAGE de Northern Utah or the NAACP, among others, continue to push for changes to policies and practices that disproportionately negatively impact minority communities, we can start to see equity in our structures and institutions. Rest assured, these changes will be painful but are required for healing.
Dr. King wanted people to think and then act. If we as a people desire different outcomes, then we must be willing think differently. To accomplish that, we need to spend time asking new questions such as, What am I not understanding about this issue that causes others to protest and fight so hard? How do I act when I don’t feel heard by others about issues I care about? How can I be part of the solution, not the problem?
When we ask questions, we challenge the frame in the present, not decades later, when it becomes convenient for us to remember a past filled with racism, prejudice and oppression. This allows us to realize that we are living history and one day, for good or bad, people will point to it as a turning point in our lives as a nation.
People who saw him as an enemy now see him as a savior. I am reminded of his words, true then as now, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let us use this frame to see Dr. King, his legacy and the work that remains as we look at the social justice warriors of today.
Adrienne G. Andrews is the assistant vice president for diversity at Weber State University. Twitter: @AdieAndrewsCDO.