Monday, January 18, 2010

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Princeton professor Cornel West gave a speech today in Atlanta, GA, urging the crowd to not to "sanitize" King's legacy or "simply enshrine his legacy in 'some distant museum.'"

West no doubt intended to inspire listeners to continue King's activism. But his comment got me thinking about the trickiness of commemoration.

How do you maintain the complexity and contradictions of a real (and remembered) person while you're celebrating his special-ness?

This, of course, is the kind of question that public historians and others who work on the front lines of the cultural-heritage profession face all the time. We wrestle with how to tell critical stories about our past, hopefully crafting strong, compelling historical narratives that both educate and engage the American public.

But even the best critical constructions of American public memory are subjective, and can include myth as well as truth. We have made progress in telling more critical stories of our past, but we have much more work to do.

Getting back to Dr. King and his legacy, two local efforts are working to commemorate his local connections to the Philadelphia area.

In Chester, civic leaders are raising the last $40,000 of a $900,000 project to commemorate King's three years in Chester (attending the former Crozer Theological Seminary) with a bronze sculpture. You can see photos of the full-size model for the bust by clicking here to go to the Inquirer story about the project.

Chester already has two state historical markers documenting King's connection to the area, one celebrating his three years in the community and another his attendance at Crozer. You can read a longer piece about King's time in Chester here, at

Meanwhile, leaders in West Philadelphia are planning to commemorate an important visit by King during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The 1965 Freedom Now Rally near 40th Street and Haverford Avenue drew 10,000 people. The state approved adding a historical marker in 2008 and, last I heard, it will be installed later in 2010.

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