“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—“
This Martin Luther King Holiday will be the first holiday with the new memorial on the National Mall. I recall all the fanfare and excitement as the initial plans for the dedication were taking place last summer. I recall all of the Facebook photos of family members and friends standing in the shadow of the magnificently imposing stone structure. I still have friends now who return again and again to the mall to walk around under King’s shadow and marvel at the wonder of the achievement of finally having a memorial to his work. I, am not among them. I have never been to the memorial and am still somewhat hesitant in visiting. I know, I know, how can you be a Black Baptist Preacher and not visit the nation’s only historical marker to…… a Black Baptist Preacher (and to the legacy of Civil Rights in America)? Glad you asked……
Memorials, why they serve to preserve our collective history, do not always effectively convey historical truth (see scandal of the misquoted speech). That is to say, the history behind the man or woman who is eternally preserved in stone is sometimes conveyed through the prisms of convenience and relative truth. Memorials are pieces of art, teaching tools and establishment symbols all containing relative meaning for those experiencing their grandeur. For example, the Jefferson Memorial, while it is dedicated to one of our “Founding Fathers” and stands as a sign of his central ideology toward freedom, reminds some of the slaveholding hypocrisy of this nation. The Lincoln Memorial stands as symbol of the power of unity as displayed in the Union of “these United States” over the differences that separate us. For others, the memorial stands for emancipation and freedom from slavery. Memorials and monuments mean different things to different people, that is the strength of having memorials. It is also their weakness. For subjective truth can quickly devolve into a relativism that makes symbols mean just about anything you want them to. Specifically, memorials can be made to mean just about anything when placed in the hands of the right (wrong) individual.
My ambivalence to the King National Memorial is more concretely rooted in the fact that the memorial doesn’t connect with the memory of Dr. King as I have come to know him. I understood Dr. King to be about action that leads to societal change and prophetic accountability. I understand his legacy to be one of service to all humanity. The challenge of the memorial’s construction and dedication reminded me that a different reality is at work. Very recently, it dawned on me that I didn’t know him. I never did. All I have known of him was what I have been told. Everything I have known about Dr. King has been through the lenses of those who have carried their own understanding of him. I do not have personal knowledge. I didn’t see news reports about his latest rally. I didn’t attend a church where he preached. I have never heard his voice on live broadcast.
This revelation is not anything new. I had it a few years ago while attending a conference seminar in which the topic of living in a world in the “Post King Generation”. I learned from that conference that there is real power in how we remember what God has done. The text from Deuteronomy reminds us of just that. As a part of the restatement of the legal customs of ancient Israel, the writer admonishes us to take care to remember. We are neither to forget or let others deny what God has already done in the life of the community. I see this as a very important concept for our nation as a Christian in the world. It is not just the act of remembering that is important, but also how we remember that is inferred. The story has to be told but we need to take care in telling the whole story, anything less is called propaganda. Erecting monuments and statues, reciting speeches and offering books critiquing legacies are all ways of remembering. While these ways of remembering are appropriate in certain arenas, the biblical text questions us: “Is that the careful expression of remembrance or merely one of convenience?”
Fast forward to summer of 2011. As a proud member of the Post King Generation, the idea of not knowing Dr. King became all the more poignant as the imposing stone structure took shape along the Tidal Basin in DC. I regularly wondered, how the legacy of a prophet could be enshrined alongside monuments to war and aggression? A man who stood for justice and used this very site as a backdrop for calling the nation to task, now stands eternally as part an object of civil religious pilgrimage.
In the days after the completion, but before the dedication, groups of people from all walks were streaming by news media and television cameras. All of which praised the memorial’s construction. I vividly remember watching members of Dr. King’s fraternity (the organization key to the development and building of the memorial) stream by, along with throngs of tourists and some journalists excited about what this new memorial would mean in of the nation. In the interim, what have we done to drive closer to the vision that Dr. King had for this nation and the world? It would seem to me that the legacy of any memorial to “the dreamer” is far outweighed by the capacity of those who believe in enacting the dream to bring about systemic change. In this way, we take care to remember Dr. King’s work because we pick up where he left off. We become part of a memorial that serves to make a more perfect union, instead of using the symbol of stone and words to manifest dreams of our own design.
The danger of the memorial (without action) is quite simply the usurpation of the legacy of Dr. King. To be sure, Dr. King is part of our national heritage and therefore belongs to the nation, but his message was uniquely prophetic against the practices of the nation. A proud American, he spoke against the status quo and the established ways of national policy, political engagement and social mores in order to provide a much needed morality to the social discourse. Today, when free-market capitalists and conservative pundits use the national heritage in the person of Dr. King to further sell their “dreams”, we risk losing the values Dr. King embodied. When big box retailers have “King Holiday Sales” and many Americans still struggle to see the relevance of the holiday, the memorial has no meaning and we have yet to live into the dream.
My vision for truth this Martin Luther King Holiday is for all of us to read more than just the “I Have a Dream Speech” and know he was a “great man”. There was more Dr. King wanted to say and more he wanted to do. There was his stance against the Vietnam War, the Poor People’s March and his aggressive campaign for equality and justice as fundamentally American. Before we sound horns and pat ourselves on the back for what we have done in this memorial, let us complete the work that he started in building a better society. In that way, we become the memorial that honors his life…