Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. In our national imaginary, some days aren’t like the other ones. The ordinary rituals and regular sequences of our lives get interrupted. On national holidays, we take part in rituals observed far less often, or we experience other ways of being that are on the way to becoming ritual. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Martin Luther King Day is unique among the other momentary interruptions. Its recentness makes it more solemn than other official days. A good number of us were alive before the holiday came into being in 1983. We also have yet to reach the point where Martin Luther King, Jr. might feasibly no longer be alive had he not been murdered in 1968. He would have celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday yesterday. For reasons like these and a whole host of other, more important ones besides, we haven’t yet done the amount—nor the kind—of collective forgetting that makes most national holidays playful. There are no fireworks or parades. I’ve never been to a King day barbecue or party; a “breakfast” maybe, a ‘luncheon” or “dinner” to be sure, but not a barbecue or party. Retailers have yet to capitalize on this day like they do Presidents’ Day. They don’t offer bargains on cars or mattresses, at least not yet anyway. King Day is still a day for thinking rather than deals—now more than ever. That makes it a day for intellectual history too.
[Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which have appeared every other Sunday in recent weeks. — Ben Alpers]
I’ve been spending a lot of time this break thinking about my Syllabus for a 2000 level African American History course I will be teaching this summer. I took one of these courses as an undergrad – but we heavily relied on the textbook, something I am determined not to do. My research is primarily in the late 20th century, so I think I’ve got that covered. I’m excited to have them read MLK’s speech to the garbage workers, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and some of George Jackson’s letters. I will blast them with photos of Black Panthers at soup kitchens, show them the COINTELPRO files on Fred Hampton’s apartment, and try with all my might to convince them that Rosa Parks was not a tired old lady. But there are other periods, one’s that I don’t study, but are no less important, that I’m at a loss for. One of those is Reconstruction. So I solicited suggestions on twitter and Facebook and from friends studying the period. Here is what they have come up with.
The most suggested reading was Foner’s Short History of Reconstruction. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. Not that it’s a bad book – it’s a book I have very much enjoyed. But it is also a bit dated at this point and I was surprised to hear that it is still very much the standard for the period – at least for undergraduate study,. At the same time, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, often cited as the first non-Lost Cause analysis of the period, was only referenced once. I’m wondering if it’s because of age, because of the density of prose, or something else? I am still thinking about assigning a few chapters from it. Continue reading
Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.
Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.