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Real history

Martin Luther King Jr.
Florida Morning
Wikimedia Commons

How can we remember history, especially when there is so much of it and more happens every year? For the most part we don’t. People and events that should be remembered forever all too often vanish into the oubliette of forgetfulness. So our national holidays serve as a kind of historical wake-up call, often with the added bonus of a three-day weekend. That gets everyone’s attention. It doesn’t even have to be good memory. The Serbs celebrate the battle of Kosovo in 1389, which they lost, and the French have Bastille Day on July 14, commemorating a riot in 1789 which was the beginning of the French Revolution and 25 years of war, chaos and anarchy.

I have reasons to remember today’s national holiday. My very first visit to the United States was in 1966, an interesting year. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. When I arrived in Los Angeles the Watts Riots were only six months in the past, Huey Newton would soon launch the militant Black Panther Party in Oakland, and Dr. Martin Luther King had taken his Civil Rights Crusade to Chicago, where he spoke to a peaceful crowd of 50,000.

It was all new to me, coming from an environment where, at that time, race was scarcely ever mentioned. I had no ready-made set of experiences and opinions as most Americans did, but I kept notes on my road trip, which lasted a whole year. The notes bring back some vivid memories.

In the South in 1966 the remnants of legal segregation were clearly visible, although I quickly learned that it was better not to talk about it. Racial tension was in the air — you could feel it. Even driving a car with New York plates was asking for trouble. American friends said I was crazy when I drove around some of the more volatile areas, naively looking around and taking photographs.

Those last years of the 1960s were one of the critical moments in modern American history, when two models of social change came up against each other — the democratic non-violent model of Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP, and the revolutionary model of the Black Power movement. The Black Power activists scared a lot of people half to death and were ruthlessly repressed by the government.

Dr. King, on the other hand, appealed to the nation’s conscience. His was a moral crusade as much as a political one, and he brought religion into politics in a big way. When he looked into the Bible he found there a message of peace, and a condemnation of the enrichment of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. He must have been using an old-fashioned Bible. Recent events suggest that there must be a new revised edition, more in tune with today’s aggressive and acquisitive culture.

In his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech Dr. King said:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

But what I wrote in my notebook, after driving though Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and south Los Angeles in 1966 was a single, pessimistic sentence. “This is not going to be put right in my lifetime.” And I’m still here, and we still need a Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.