Last September, Black Perspectives published a piece about Martin Luther King, Jr’s use of the year 1619 as a waypoint in his speeches and sermons about Black history at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This essay, published on the anniversary of his death, takes a brief look at King’s use of history in the final years of his life. As King publicly associated himself with radical elements of the broader human rights movement in American society—pushing for an end to the Vietnam War and a broad-based economic rights agenda, coupled with civil rights—he also utilized specific ideas from America’s radical and progressive past to make his views known to listening audiences. There is much, much more to be written about how Martin Luther King, Jr. used this history in his speeches, sermons, and books, but what follows is but a brief sampling of how he achieved this. Public uses of history by prominent figures matters, because it showcases how the public—or, to be specific, various publics—remember the past. In the examples that follow, King responds to the Civil Rights Movement’s final great triumph—the 1965 Voting Rights Act—and the rise of Black Power. In the process, his sermonizing allowed King the opportunity to once again present to the American public a different, more radical way of thinking about America’s past.
By 1965, King’s stature as a moral and social leader in American society had been fully cemented. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That year also saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and by the spring of 1965, King helped give voice to the fight for voting rights proceeding in Selma, Alabama. His speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965, reminded his audience of history’s importance to King and the movement. But for King, it was a particular interpretation of recent Southern history that formed the heart of his text.
C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow became known as “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” laying out a usable history of the segregation regime in the South. Quite simply, Woodward’s book made clear that Jim Crow segregation was not the “natural” way of things—but was, instead, merely a political system. King, in analyzing The Strange Career of Jim Crow for his audience members, was crafting Woodward’s book as part of a usable past for both Black and white Americans. It was one that showed how “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” It was, in other words, a system that could be altered by political will.