MLK and Representing the Nation

Among other things, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday involves a recognition of the monumental stature of King and the Civil Rights Movement in U.S. history and national identity. Because of the signal accomplishments of the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Martin Luther King has the same historical stature that the Revolution gave George Washington and the Civil War gave Lincoln. Here at the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King is pictured across from the Washington Monument and near the Lincoln Memorial as he was about to embark on his own most memorialized moment.

+Toward the end of “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that black people “will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” King emphasized the extent to which black people were part of American history and the American people. Although “abused and scorned,” black people were included in the “destiny of America” and had been since the first slaves were brought ashore in 1619. With Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a federal holiday celebrating King and the Civil Rights Movement, the black Civil Rights activists of the 1950’s and 1960’s were not just viewed as “included” in the American story but seen as actors in a crucial part of American history and also representing exemplary representatives of the courage, fortitude, and passion for justice that would make people proud to be Americans. People both at home and abroad could look at the history of the Civil Rights movement and think “this is who Americans are.” In other words, the people and actions of the Civil Rights Movement have become crucial elements in American national identity.

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